‘Hinterland’ by Carol Shields

The effect of another type of missed realisation is examined in Carol Shields’ short story ‘Hinterland’. Here the fleeting nature of an existential experience of beauty is explored; the present is poised as a moment with potential, but it passes without acknowledgement and the result is distance and dissatisfaction between the characters. A couple takes an excursion to the Cluny Museum in Paris where Meg notices the painting of a sculpture, “a particular gilded Virgin”. She says that the portrait will be the single object she will remember from their trip. However, her husband, Roy says he missed it, and he returns on his own to the Museum to view it. Standing in front of the painting, he reflects on its “crude approximations, but is nonetheless moved at the way a human life drains towards one revealing scene”. A fire alarm prompts him to leave the Museum in a panic. Later this incident is the only thing he recollects, while Meg reminisces on the expensive long distance telephone call she made to her daughter. Neither of them will think of the painting, and their “remembrance of specific events” will become “worn smooth and treacherous as the stone steps of ancient buildings.” The recognition is only for the reader, while the characters stay trapped in their limited understanding. 

Published in The Orange Fish and Other Stories, 1989, and the Collected Stories, Fourth Estate, 2004

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