August 6, 2012

"Thank You for the Light"

By F. Scott Fitzgerald
~1200 words

Near the end of a long workday, a woman searches for an unoffending place to smoke a cigarette.

The third-person narrative follows Mrs. Hanson, "a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty" who sells corsets and girdles on a traveling route that moves westward following her promotion. One busy afternoon in Kansas City, she finds her clients unexpectedly anti-tobacco and enters the Catholic cathedral thinking it might be a reasonable place to satisfy her urge for a cigarette: "if so much incense had gone up in the spires to God, a little smoke in the vestibule would make no difference. How could the Good Lord care if a tired woman took a few puffs in the vestibule?" Hoping for a light from a votive candle, she is dismayed to find that the sexton has just put them all out. Dozing off in a pew before an icon of the Virgin Mary, she awakens to find a lighted cigarette in her hand.

The story offers much to admire in a mere 1200 words. The main character is delightfully portrayed: captive to her vice ("I'm getting to be a drug fiend," she muses) but hesitant to offend others, especially in a cathedral. Equally well-crafted is the passive aggressiveness of the nonsmokers—and there were apparently plenty of them in Fitzgerald's time—who answer her requests "half-apologetically with 'It's not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.'" The language is perhaps not as crisp as one might expect from a master such as Fitzgerald, but it's not totally surprising given the posthumous nature of the piece. (I don't read anything about TNY's stories before writing my critiques, so I'm unaware of how much editorial intervention—if any—went into this publication.)

Dating from 1936, "Thank You for the Light" is a charming example of early-twentieth-century flash fiction, a perfect fit—literally—for the single New Yorker page on which it has come to rest.


Reader poll: I found "Thank You for the Light" to be ___.

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