Steinbeck's 'Slav Girl' and the Role of the Narrator in 'The Murder.'

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Author: John Ditsky
Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 135)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,332 words

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[(essay date summer-fall 1989) In the following essay, Ditsky contends that the character of the Slav girl Jelka Sepic in "The Murder" is the key to Steinbeck's experiment in manipulating the role of the narrator.]

With one or two conspicuous exceptions, John Steinbeck's characters fall into a single ethnic group: that of people of North-European stock--ranging from German to Irish, the specific ingredients of Steinbeck's own genetic mix--who would collectively, in the California of his rearing, have been referred to as "Anglos," the group that largely controlled the society of that place and time. (Even his Okies, or the European cast of The Moon Is Down, are of this ethnic origin.) The exceptions include the Indians, Hispanics, and the "paisano" mix of the two (already amply discussed by Steinbeck's critics), who are generally used to embody the attractions of a simpler, less driven sort of existence, but who for that reason lend themselves to being evidence for the charge of authorial stereotyping. Even more exotic, more stereotypically "different," are his Orientals, who begin as figures of mystery and inscrutability in the early works, and become avatars of wisdom and endurance by the time of the writing of East of Eden. Beyond these, however, the rest of the human race appears in Steinbeck's fiction as isolated instances: the lonely and distrustful Black Crooks in Of Mice and Men and the deported grocer Marullo in The Winter of Our Discontent. Are there any others? Aside from the nonfiction A Russian Journal, one might observe by way of reply that the only Slavs who appear in Steinbeck's writing are the unspecifiedly "Jugo-Slav" characters who appear in the 1934 short story "The Murder."1

Steinbeck's biographer Jackson J. Benson summarized "The Murder" as follows:

"The Murder" is a strange story, a sort of gothic Western, about a rancher who marries a Slavic girl who is very animallike in her behavior and in her response to her husband. Inspired by the peculiar characteristics of the wife of one of his friends, Steinbeck places a caricature of her into a plot derived from a bit of local history (a husband who kills his wife and her lover) and uses as his setting a picturesque local landmark. The location is a ranch in a canyon off the road to Corral del Tierra, walled on one side by sandstone cliffs called "The Castles" because of their uncanny resemblance to a medieval fortress. ... The abandoned ranch buildings described in Steinbeck's story still stand at the foot of the cliffs.2

Benson's summary does not explain whether the "local history" was connected with these "abandoned ranch buildings," nor does he suggest that "the wife of one of his friends" resembled the Jelka of "The Murder" in also being "Jugo-Slav"; but it is interesting that Benson uses an even more generalized term, "Slavic," to describe this girl. (Then again, Benson is himself a Californian.) It might be fatuous to go so far as to suggest that Steinbeck uses "The...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420098916