ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
6 February 2008
A Close Reading of Amy Hempel's “The Annex”
In the story “The Annex,” Amy Hempel creates a highly realistic, ordinary, and modern world. A couple moves into a house only to find the loft still filled with the abandoned possessions of the previous owners, the annex of a cemetery happens to be situated across the road, and a woman who loses her unborn baby buries it there and visits the grave daily. The setting and actions hardly seem extraordinary; Hempel constructs the story from daily life rather than overtly fantastic details. In the recounting of these details, however, she transforms what appears to be ordinary reality into a monstrous existence. The repetition of otherwise unremarkable occurrences haunts “The Annex,” as the narrator’s fixation transcends the everyday and forms a new reality to justify the taboo of digging up a child’s grave; expressed through the narrator’s subjective mindset, reality is unstable and created by the one experiencing it.
Hempel blurs the line between the ordinary and the supernatural through repetition that emphasizes details which, on their own, would not otherwise possess such strangeness. Given the facts of the story, the dead baby is never more than a dead baby, but it takes on a ghostly aspect that is never explicitly stated. The narrator repeatedly mentions symbols of the baby’s presence which disturb her: the glare of headlights or the reflection of sun from the headstone, the inescapable view of the grave from all the windows of the house, and her inability to find peace while she knows the baby lies across the street. The narrator gives no proof of anything strange or suspicious about the annex, yet her fixation lends credibility to her assertion that the true reality of the cemetery is not “a vision of perfect peace” (Hempel 227). However, the baby’s grave is not the only repeated detail to assume a nightmarish life of its own. The woman who visits the grave also suffers a transformation. Her actions—bringing flowers, coming to the annex daily, borrowing from neighbors—are ordinary and harmless, but the narrator recounts and emphasizes them critically until she seems to be, exactly as the narrator views her, a true threat to the stability of the narrator’s world. Against this woman, the repeatedly elusive but otherwise unremarkable shovel becomes a desperate lifeline to which the narrator clings and which seems the only solution to break through the obsessive fantasy.
Reality in “The Annex” is a subjective view of the world created by the observer, the narrator. The mundane details of daily life alone do not comprise the reality; it is fluid rather than fixed on facts. Instead, the narrator’s obsession with and fixation on her altered vision makes her reality, her interpretation of the facts, convincing and seemingly credible. Regardless of whether or not the woman and the baby are actively haunting her, it is enough to understand that it appears this way to the narrator’s eyes: “It is all that I can ever see, all that I can ever talk about. There is nothing else to talk about” (223).What the narrator believes in her fixation is the “truth,” and the more she focuses on and repeats it, the more she transforms it into a convincing reality. Despite being superficially set in the “real world,” the narrator’s manipulation of what appears real seems to nearly justify her final desire to dig up the baby and remove it from her life.
Hempel constructs a reality that, while situated in the normal, transcends into the supernatural through the bias of the narrator. Her emphasis on the repetition of ordinary details transforms them into something larger than life. This new reality gains credibility from the narrator, who fixates on the fantastical interpretation of these aspects until they appear to be the truth of the story, regardless of the factual details.