Ellen Gilchrist’s Rhoda: A Life in Stories follows the protagonist, Rhoda Manning, from her exploits as a child through her late fifties. A collection of short stories, Gilchrist’s work reads more like a novel as each story is told with a flair and feistiness that is the trademark of the main character. Although each story can stand alone, meaning that they do not necessarily need to be “linked” to work, part of the fascination for the reader is that we can watch Rhoda evolve. Because of this, we are entirely invested in Rhoda and privy to psychological underpinnings that drive her to behave as she does.
The reader is witness to a full character arc, from a yearning child to a rebellious teen to a lost grown woman who repeats the mistakes of her father in a quest to seal the void that his career-driven focus created. We travel through events that shape her, World War II, losing her virginity, a hasty marriage, bearing children, and her plunge into alcoholism. There are a few pivotal moments in the collected works where the reader can “see” Rhoda the best—her personality, her evolution.
In the short story “Victory over Japan,” Rhoda is nine years old and her father is fighting in World War II. The day that victory was declared, although there was some relief for her that the Japanese would not invade Indiana, she primarily is dreading the return of her father. Gilchrist writes
Finally I went upstairs and lay down on the bed to think things over. My father was coming home. I didn’t know how to feel about that. He was always yelling at someone when he was home…
“What do you mean, you can’t catch her,” I could hear him yelling. “Hit her with a broom. Hit her with a table. Hit her with a chair. But for God’s sake, Ariane, don’t let her talk to you that way.” (65)
This passage paints a picture of a fearful childhood for Rhoda. Fear of her father, fear of a world at war. Further, in the short story “The Expansion of the Universe,” Rhoda is forced to move yet again as her father chases his fortunes. All of these incidents combined create the foundation for who Rhoda becomes, the instability that defines her, the drive to have more and more to soothe her emptiness. By showing Rhoda in this early stage, the reader is ultimately more understanding of events to come.
Rhoda’s life further becomes defined when she discovers sex as an outlet. Gilchrist writes of Rhoda losing her virginity to Johnny Hazard and then of her encounters with frat boy Malcolm. There is something distressing in these scenes, and it’s not that Rhoda is experimenting sexually. Instead, it is Gilchrist’s deft characterization and how she is able to show the aching vulnerability as Rhoda, so young, confuses love and sex. With both of these partners she tells them, “I love you,” even though there is no meaningful foundation or relationship to base this on. With Malcolm she takes this “love” and confusion even further and weds him in North Carolina after only knowing him for a week. We see this childlike need for connection throughout the book and not until decades later does Rhoda learn to stand on her own without a random man to ease her through a chaotic life. Following this arc to its happier conclusion provides a sense of well-being for the reader.
After Rhoda’s turn towards sobriety, and faced with the realities of aging, she seeks adventure to recapture some of the excitement that has been lost. She goes to Mexico with her brother, Dudley, and Saint John, her cousin, in the story “Mexico”. On their last day in the country, Dudley shows Rhoda lions that are contained only by a flimsy enclosure. Rhoda, terrified, runs away, falls into a hole, and breaks her ankle. This jolts her to her senses, bringing back an awareness that she, and her relatives, do not need to seek what they need from adventure or other people. Rhoda pens a letter to Dudley saying:
We have been the victims of Daddy’s aggression all our lives. The pitiful little victims of his terrible desire for money and power. All he understands is power. He doesn’t have the vaguest idea how to love anyone and neither do you and I. We must save ourselves, Dudley… come up here and visit me and we will sit on the porch and drink coffee and try to think of things to do that are substitutes for always being in danger. (Gilchrist 370)
We see here a full evolution, wisdom that comes from the pain of trying to fill her life with sex, alcohol, and hard living.
There are many more instances in this collection that show how strong the characterization is of Rhoda and how effective Gilchrist has crafted a character arc. A review on the back of the novel from Entertainment Weekly states that “Rhoda is a fully realized creation.” Indeed, Gilchrist seems to have thought of it all, from a childhood marked by a sense of displacement, an unstable adolescence, a chaotic, alcohol- and sex-filled adulthood where she neglects her own children, to a more actualized human being who looks outside herself in a more productive way, to care for others, not to leech upon them. Such an evolution of character was brilliantly done.
So, how can you create a Rhoda in your own work? Obviously it is not the path for every character to have their entire life span on the page. However, you as the author should know this character in more than just the snippet of time you are capturing. I believe that all of our past instances stack up like blocks on top of each other to form the picture of our now. (If you’re familiar with psychological/counseling theory, this puts me primarily in the psychodynamic category.) The character may not be consciously aware of the composition of each block, but the author should be. After all, humans behave in ways that are sometimes nonsensical, or seem to be, but if we trace the lines backward we can find some inciting incident for what occurs.
Use this to your advantage in your writing, and have fun with it! Ask yourself what sort of childhood your character had, what sort of adolescence, what sort of college experience, and if you haven’t read Ellen Gilchrist’s Rhoda: A Life in Stories I highly recommend it, as it is a fantastic example of character arc.
Happy writing (and reading)!
Gilchrist, Ellen. Rhoda: A Life in Stories. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1995. Print.