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Edgar Lee Masters' "Ollie McGee" and "Fletcher McGee"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Ollie McGee Speaks

In Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, Mrs. "Ollie McGee" begins by posing a question, after which she launches her accusation.

Ollie McGee

Have you seen walking through the village
A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;
Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,
And with broken pride and shameful humility,
I sank into the grave.
But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!
These are driving him to the place where I lie.
In death, therefore, I am avenged.

Reading of "Ollie McGee"

Commentary

Ollie McGee offers her take on her marriage with Fletcher McGee.

First Movement: Question and Accusation

Have you seen walking through the village
A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;
Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,
And with broken pride and shameful humility,
I sank into the grave.

Mrs. "Ollie McGee" begins with a query, wondering if her listeners have observed, "a man with downcast eyes and haggard face," ambling throughout the village from time to time. She then admits that that haggard face belongs to the man who was her husband.

The speaker then begins to hurl accusations at the man. The wife reveals that he is guilty of horrifying cruelty: the man took away his wife's youth as well as her beauty. This theft continued over the lifetime of their miserable marriage. Mrs. McGee then died, "wrinkled and with yellow teeth." He stole her pride and made her suffer "shameful humility."

Second Movement: Vengeance

But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!
These are driving him to the place where I lie.
In death, therefore, I am avenged.

Ollie then offers a further inquiry, as she questions whether her listeners know what "gnaws at my husband’s heart." She contends that two images likely unsettle her husband’s heart and mind: "the face of what I was" and "the face of what he made me." Mrs. McGee asserts that these images are taking his life, "driving him to the place where I lie." Thus, she has convinced herself that she is getting her revenge in death.

Fletcher McGee Speaks

Fletcher McGee offers his own complaint but reveals himself to a criminal in his own behavior.

Fletcher McGee

She took my strength by minutes,
She took my life by hours,
She drained me like a fevered moon
That saps the spinning world.
The days went by like shadows,
The minutes wheeled like stars.
She took the pity from my heart,
And made it into smiles.
She was a hunk of sculptor’s clay,
My secret thoughts were fingers:
They flew behind her pensive brow
And lined it deep with pain.
They set the lips, and sagged the cheeks,
And drooped the eyes with sorrow.
My soul had entered in the clay,
Fighting like seven devils.
It was not mine, it was not hers;
She held it, but its struggles
Modeled a face she hated,
And a face I feared to see.
I beat the windows, shook the bolts.
I hid me in a corner—
And then she died and haunted me,
And hunted me for life.

Reading of "Fletcher McGee"

Commentary

Two miserable people made each other miserable, but who was the actual culprit in this dungheap of a marriage?

First Movement: Accusations Returned

She took my strength by minutes,
She took my life by hours,
She drained me like a fevered moon
That saps the spinning world.
The days went by like shadows,
The minutes wheeled like stars.

Mr. "Fletcher McGee" also begins his epitaph with appalling accusations against his wife. Just as he had done, she had foisted on him unspeakable cruelty: "she took my strength," "she took my life," "she drained me." This speaker also includes time measurements to each complaint, in order to increase and compound the pain he claims he suffered at the hands of this woman. Mr. McGee then asserts, "the days went by like shadows, / the minutes wheeled like stars."

Second Movement: Vengeance Returned

She was a hunk of sculptor’s clay,
My secret thoughts were fingers:
They flew behind her pensive brow
And lined it deep with pain.
They set the lips, and sagged the cheeks,
And drooped the eyes with sorrow.
My soul had entered in the clay,
Fighting like seven devils.
It was not mine, it was not hers;
She held it, but its struggles
Modeled a face she hated,
And a face I feared to see.
I beat the windows, shook the bolts.
I hid me in a corner—
And then she died and haunted me,
And hunted me for life.

After fiercely complaining that Mrs. McGee ruined his life, Mr. McGee freely and somewhat gleefully confesses that he, in fact quite deliberately, ruined hers. Instead of pitying his wife for her unhappiness and shrewish behavior, he came to possess the ability to smile about her suffering. His smiles grew out of the fact that he had power over her. He came to see her only as "a hunk of sculptor’s clay." Thus, Mr. McGee went about working to sculpt the ugly features into his wife.

This despicable husband asserts that, "my secret thoughts were fingers." He continues with the sculptor metaphor, as he affirms what Ollie has earlier said about the man. The miserable husband freely confesses and describes his fingers as sculptors, motivated by his "secret thoughts" which "lined" "her pensive brow" "deep with pain." Mr. McGee again freely admits that he, in fact, "set the lips, and sagged the cheeks, / And drooped the eyes with sorrow.” He then bizarrely asserts that his "soul had entered in the clay." Thus, his soul became the force of evil, "fighting like seven devils." He appears to have become so hooked on making her miserable that he just could not stop himself. His evil served him like a dangerous drug.

Mr. McGee then admits that he actually killed her: "I beat the windows, shook the bolts." He vaguely claims that he hid "in a corner," and "she died and haunted me / And hunted me for life.” He took advantage of his weak, depressed, sorrowful wife. He fully realized what he was doing. Therefore, it becomes clear that Ollie was correct about her lout of a husband, who was in fact a criminal. At least Mrs. McGee can feel somewhat avenged in death. But a pathetic irony is laced within these pitiful confessions. Readers are left to doubt that any vengeance or feeling "haunted" can, in fact, offer these tortured souls any meaningful rest.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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