The Lost Phoebe Analysis

6 June 2016

‘The Lost Phoebe’ is a short story that was written by Theodore Dreiser. The story is set in a small, increasingly run-down, Midwestern farm, where an old, married couple depend on each other— until the wife dies. The husband refuses help and slowly descends into depression and inactivity. One night, he sees a shadow that looks like his lost Phoebe, and creates a belief, born of loneliness, that she’s only left him, as she often threatened to do when he became quarrelsome. Completely invested in his self-delusion, he goes looking for her every night, eventually leaving his home for good, living off the charity of his neighbors as he searches from place to place. After seven years of this, he has another vision of his Phoebe and leaps off a cliff to be with her.

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When his body is found, his face wears a peaceful smile. The story is written in a form of narration and is conducted on third person. The characters in “The Lost Phoebe” are Henry Reifsneider, his wife Phoebe, the doctor, and neighbours. During the depression years, when the story was written, many people, especially young people, left the countryside and moved to the cities to search for work, because of dropping farm crop prices. However, Henry Reifsneider and his wife did not move to a city choosing to live an extremely common and isolated life.

The story begins 48 years after Henry and Phoebe’s marriage but Dreiser describes scenes of both the past and the present, making it unclear what is happening when. Here, after Phoebe dies, Henry is left alone in their farm, growing sadder every day until he begins hallucinating that his dear Phoebe is not at all dead and is maybe just somewhere else, visiting some friends, or hiding from him, teasing him as she had always kidded him about going away whenever he did some things she disapproved of. Thus, the conflict in the story is mostly internal.

The story contains an abundance of stylistic devices. The similes such as “stood like a dusty, bony skeleton”, “fasten themselves like lichens on the stones of circumstance”, “flickering like Northern lights in the night”, “sounding as faintly as cow-bells tinkling in the distance” describe the couple’s daily life and are used to make the description far too picturesque and very illustrative. This story gives great attention to detail. Many colors and physical conditions are offered in the descriptions of the people, places and things. The language of the dialogues is highly colloquial: a lot of spoken words and expressions like “yuh”, “ain’t”, “an’” are used to make the speech more live and natural.

The story has a deep emotional appeal. It is written with a touch of tragedy and is intended to provoke thoughts. Henry himself resembles Don Quixote, who had to be delusional to be happy. The search for Phoebe was the same kind of thing. The idea that he could do something to reunite himself with his wife kept the old man going—it kept him happy and active. “The Lost Phoebe”is faced with the subject of death, the perspectives are different regarding social class, environment, and the mental state the character holds.

The story addressed the mental state of one who becomes physically incapable of forming sane thoughts. Henry Reifsneider, however, loses his sane mental state not long after the love of his life dies. He is poor and can hardly care for himself. It was hinted that he lived a good life with his wife seeing as they “were as fond of each other as it is possible for two old people to be who have nothing else in this life to be fond of”. After that instance, illusions begin coming more frequently until he begins to travel long distances in search of her.

This ultimately leads him to chase an illusion right off the side of the cliff—where he falls to his death. Ultimately, the thought is not about the usefulness of life or the misplacement of values. In “The Lost Phoebe” the main character is seen as a victim of its physical environment, put in an isolated environment and then is thrust into a situation of which he has no control thus evoking sympathy.

One loses track of time while reading Dreiser’s stories. Personally I liked the story as it is full of sympathy, tragedy and sadness and all these features definitely produce a powerful effect on the reader.

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