ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
6 February 2008
A Close Reading of Amy Hempel's “Nashville Gone to Ashes”
Amy Hempel’s writing style was certainly something brand new for me. When reading the first collection of her stories, many of them were difficult for me to gather meaning from simply because they were so compact and concise with every sentence seemingly important to the story. The first story of hers to stand out to me, however, was “Nashville Gone to Ashes.”
The three stories prior to “Nashville” left me feeling as if I was missing something. Upon later reflection, I was – most of Hempel’s stories cannot be understood with one reading in one sitting. With “Nashville,” however, I did not end the story with the same sense of confusion, but I did know that there was more under the surface that further readings would unearth.
The simple impression that I got from the end of “Nashville Gone to Ashes” was that it was a story of coping with loss. However, there were many sections that raised questions as to the relationship the narrator had with her husband when he was living – not to mention how the relationship changed now that he’s dead. For starters, even though the nickname “Flea” correlates to his name (F. Lee), to call someone a flea is not necessarily a good thing. A flea is not a desirable creature to be around. In fact, people do everything they can to rid themselves and their pets of fleas.
Contemplating why she would consistently refer to her husband as “Flea” leads to the passage in which the narrator reveals that she is responsible for F. Lee’s practice (she purchased it for him with money that was left to her by her father). Did she consider F. Lee a parasite? A later passage reveals that they don’t have the closest relationship when the narrator describes that they each had separate beds. Nashville the dog was allowed to sleep with F. Lee on a consistent basis while the narrator and her husband shared beds when they truly needed intimate human contact (not sex, as she is quick to point out). The confusion as to their relationship continues with passages in which she explains that she loves F. Lee’s passion towards his animals and hopes that it will someday transfer over to her. She also makes a point to tell us that the immunotherapy she receives to combat her cat allergy consists of shots, not pills.
These passages seem to indicate that the narrator wishes us to see the sacrifices she’s made for a husband that, seemingly, loved her less than his animal patients and pets. There is a strange jealousy the narrator has for the pets in her home. While she does care for them (as when she describes the preventative hairball treatment for Chuck as well as placing his food in a water bowl with a spoonful of soap to keep the bugs away from it), she also seems to resent them for stealing all of her husband’s attention. This culminates in the passage where the narrator admits to feeling upstaged by Nashville after the dog’s depression over the death of F. Lee led to Nashville’s own sickness through lack of appetite.
Finally, I feel that the narrator ends the story of Flea and their menagerie on a note of forgiveness to everyone. The narrator feels as if F. Lee loved her the same as he loved his animals. She also explains that she knows what it feels like to be disappointed when efforts to alter behavior come to nothing, indicating that the narrator tried very hard to assist the earlier mentioned hope of F. Lee’s love transferal. However, the final section seems to dispel these negative feelings within the narrator.
The narrator tells two anecdotes in the final section. In the first, she receives a bouquet of roses from her dead husband on their anniversary. The florist tells the narrator that F. Lee had “love insurance” which automatically sends flowers in case the buyer forgets. Afterwards, she takes a walk to relieve the shock she received and, upon seeing a beggar with a dog, buys food for the dog while neglecting to give the man anything.
After these two bits, the narrator ends with, “We give what we can – that’s as far as the heart can go.” I feel that, all in all, this last statement is one of forgiveness. The narrator seems to forgive her husband, realizing that he loved her the best and only way he knew how. She forgives the animals. Finally, she forgives herself – putting to rest her conflicted feelings and accepting herself and her feelings. With that realization, and the rain, as she states, the narrator goes home – finally at peace.