[an analysis by Michaela Tashjian]
Mary Clearman Blew’s “The Unwanted Child” opens with the narrator’s discovery that she is pregnant. While the end of the story returns to this discovery and the concerns of the opening scene, the reader does not arrive there until after he or she has partaken of the array of conflict, questions, and insecurities that surface with Blew’s exploration of the history of women in her family. The title of Blew’s piece tells of its central theme: unwantedness. At first glance, one expects the story to focus on the unborn child which the narrator does not want. Just a few pages in, however, the focus moves from the narrator’s future motherhood to her past daughterhood. The fourth scene begins, “My mother was an unwanted child” (46). As Blew investigates her mother’s childhood unwantedness, the reader finds the author in the territory of her own childhood suspicion that she too was unwanted by her mother. Her memories, haunted by a lack of context, raise many questions for her. The author’s eloquent use of questions in “The Unwanted Child” makes it a strong piece; she slips them into the narrative with a subtlety that holds the story together, making it more emotionally resonant than a traditional narrative.
The first questions in the text are the narrator’s responses to her husband’s ranting about pregnancy prevention theories: “What difference does it make now? Why can’t he shut up?” These questions are saturated with anxiety, weariness, and grief. They say more than “I wish he would shut up,” and say it more eloquently than “I feel anxious, weary, and distraught, and I just want to be left alone.” The next question, “Why get married at eighteen?” refamiliarizes the reader with the narrator’s voice and sets up the context of the following back story; no time or attention is wasted in scenery description. When Blew returns to the present conflict (her pregnancy) after discussing her mother, she again uses questions to draw the reader’s attention: “And the pregnant eighteen-year-old? What about her?” She soon moves on to the real question of the text, not the question of “What will I do?” one my ask when presented with a giant of a problem, but the question “What could I have done differently?” that one often asks him or herself in the years after the problem has long since worn out its welcome.
Another aspect of this work which is vital to its successfulness is the timing of its most disturbing scene, the heart of the story. While the location of the story’s heart is up to the reader’s interpretation, it goes without saying that the scene on page 51 is a likely contestant: Blew’s mother, upon finding seven-year-old Blew in a tub of water with her little sister, accuses her of wanting to murder her sister. This is a traumatic moment for Blew, reminding her of an even more traumatic episode in her life: “I had . . . drowned a setting of baby chicks in a rain barrel,” she says of a time she had “wanted them to swim. I can just remember catching a chick and holding it in the water until it stopped squirming and then laying it down to catch a fresh one. I didn’t stop until I had drowned the whole dozen and laid them out in a sodden yellow row” (51).
Blew describes the tragically innocent event so beautifully and matter-of-factly that its standing as the story’s crux is subtle. The scene and its relation to the episode of the little sister in the water tub open up all kinds of questions for the narrator: does she have a murderous impulse? Does her mother have a murderous impulse? Tarrying beneath the surface are the real questions of the piece: did my mother love me? am I capable of love? Certainly, the scene would lose its power if Blew had jumped into it at the very beginning: Let me tell you about a time I accidentally drowned some baby chickens.
Often, a writer will not end a piece with a question because it seems to defeat the purpose of conclusion. However, as illustrated in the above paragraphs, questions often come naturally with this narrator’s voice, and here, they express themes of anxiety and many other emotions with great economy of words.