“Hell is other people.”–Jean-Paul Sartre

Buckets and buckets of ink have been spilled debating the topic of what constitutes a short long story (a short novel) and what makes up a long short story (to still qualify it as a short story).  And where does the novella fit into this system, exactly?  Also, there is the series of considerations about form and content which insist that what makes a short story or novel is not only a question of length, but has formal aspects as well.  Though I’m not going to rehash any of these arguments today–aren’t you glad?–I would just point out that this book I plan to discuss, The Stepdaughter, by Caroline Blackwood, is one of the shortest epistolary pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, with both a (strong but illusory) sense of length in the form, as might occur in a novel or novella, and a twisted ending such as one might expect to find in a short story.

In Sartre’s play “Huit Clos” (translated most often as “No Exit”), when we are told “hell is other people,” we can probably all relate imaginatively to the experience being articulated, thinking perhaps of some time or other when someone else made themselves intolerable to us.  Yet, there is a deeper meaning lurking here, and Blackwood’s novel brings it out.  Sometimes, the people around us as we ourselves imagine them to be are actually much worse than the actual people, once we get to know them a little better.  Sadly, we lose all too many opportunities to do this, and repent of it too late.  As well, sometimes a whole group of people can be adversely affected and made to suspect, resent, or misinterpret each other because of the actions of one self-centered person in their midst.  Such a character is the husband figure, Arnold, in this book.

This epistolary novel (a novel written in letters) is produced in the voice of a woman known only as “J.”   She writes letters to a sort of imaginary friend, known either as “Dear….” or “Dear So-and-So.”  The letters at first are said to be “written in [her] head,” though later it seems that she is actually writing letters; at least, she excuses herself from a conversation by saying that she has letters to write.  She always signs off in a somewhat self-indulgent style, with an adverb or adverbial phrase like “In all haste as usual,” “Dismally,” “Bitterly,” “Yours miserably,” or sometimes simply “Yrs. ever.”

Her situation is this:  she shares an expensive apartment in Manhattan (provided by her soon-to-be ex-husband) with her 4 year old daughter, an introverted, fat teenage daughter passed on from her husband’s previous marriage (Renata), and an au pair.  While she is filled with rage that her husband goes away to France with a new, younger, French girlfriend and plans to leave her, her rage is expressed at first by being mutely directed outward towards the people with whom she lives.  She seems to have little self-knowledge, but instead detests first the au pair, then Renata; finally, she reveals that she no longer takes pleasure either in her friends and their offers to help or in spending time with her own little daughter.

But startling revelations are in store for “J.”  As she (and the book’s narrative, following her state of mind) pass from Part 1) resentment and rage through Part 2) opening up and understanding to Part 3) frantic fear of loss, she makes a decision to tell Renata that her husband, Arnold, Renata’s putative father, has left her.  When she does, the story begin its progress toward a truly agonizing dénouement as Renata, the previous bump on a log who did nothing much but bake instant cakes and consume them all herself, takes a hand in the action.  The experience of this short novel (or novella, or long short story) is to make one realize yet again how dependent we are not only upon what we think we share with other people, but also upon what they think they share with us:  missing reciprocity is the unspoken story in this book.

Though Caroline Blackwood has written other books by now, this was her first novel, published in paperback form by Penguin Books in 1984 (the date of first release in hardback was 1976).  Yet, it is not at all dated; for many, many women, particularly those grouped around the central figure of a male “character” like Arnold, who at worst is a conniving, serially-monogamous-while-still-cheating-near-the-end-of-a-relationship monster, and at the best is insincere and ambivalent, these issues still need to be aired.  And Arnold is a central mystery, for we never hear his voice except through the women’s quotes and interpretations of what he says.  Fiction can here fulfill one of its major functions; it can allow us to be other selves, and to learn from the experience, even to see where we ourselves have gone wrong.  I don’t mean either that this book is meant only for women:  I suspect that many men attentive to fiction might find “The Stepdaughter” worthwhile reading as well.

And lastly, I would like to raise a mourning paean over a distribution catalog that has now been discontinued.  “A Common Reader” catalog, whose home was situated at 141 Tompkins Avenue in Pleasantville, NY (doesn’t it just sound bookish and fun?) was the place I obtained “The Stepdaughter”; it was in fact a place from which I ordered most of the books that I bought from the United Kingdom.  I wanted to pass the full address and phone number along (for the benefit of some Luddites such as I have been who still love to get boxes in the mail from “real” book companies), but when I went to wikipedia to research them, it seems they ran from 1986-2006 and were then discontinued.  Such a short time, and they provided me with so much pleasure!  Goodbye old friend!  (I still haven’t bought a Kindle, so though I read some fiction and poetry from the Internet, I technically haven’t deserted.)  To my own readers, I’d say:  read, read, read, though, that’s the main thing, regardless of where you get your reading from–and I’ll be writing again soon!


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

4 responses to ““Hell is other people.”–Jean-Paul Sartre

  1. Wonderful post thanks for guiding me to it.
    I will try to find the book. I like epistolary novels and the short form which isn’t ususally going hand in hand.
    I agree that fiction allows us to be someone else. It may be one of my main reasons for reading. That’s why I like quite, introspective books. i don’t want to live other peple’s adventures but I like to see how they feel about something, what they think about it.


    • Thanks for the compliment, Caroline. I don’t know if you use Amazon.com at all, but they often have respectable prices (sometimes as low as 1 cent or 99 cents, + S&H of $3.99 or so) for older books, and they do deal with independent dealers from the UK (where this book was first published). Also, Barnes and Noble is a possibility, I guess. I think one of the amazing things about this story (novel, etc.) is that the character is so isolated in her own mind, and takes so much for granted, and seems to have alll sorts of what you call “adventures” (of the emotional kind, at least) without seeming at first to understand that things between people are a two-way street. What she thinks and what comes to seem like the truth are two dissimilar things. She has in this sense made her own “hell,” but credited it to other people. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book, and that my overflow of words hasn’t ruined the experience for you. Have fun reading!


      • I saw a fairly decent copy and will hopefully get it soon.
        Part of what you wrote reminded me of Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer. She isn’t that well know but has been translated. Well worth looking at.


  2. Thanks for the reference to Marlen Haushofer. I note that you still have an interesting discussion going on on your site about making up lists of books to read–I’ve already garnered some suggestions off that, so I guess I’ll add her to the list.


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