Maybe you would like to purchase yours now, and then hate me forever.
June 12, 2009 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Please explain what happened in Edna O'Brien's short story "Old Wounds", published in the June 8-15 issue of the New Yorker (link).

I don't understand what was being communicated in the crucial tombstone discussion between the two characters. The discussion goes:

He had been looking into the cost of a tombstone for his wife and himself and had found that it was going to be very expensive.
"Have you thought of what you intend to do?" he asked.
"I haven't," I said flatly.
"Maybe you would like to purchase yours now," he said.
"I don't understand the question," I said, although I understood it all too clearly and a river of outrage ran through me.

Apparently there is something about tombstones that I just don't understand. What is the cousin implying by suggesting the narrator buy a tombstone? Why is she so outraged by his question?
posted by medusa to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The article you linked to is behind a paywall. Could you provide any more context?
posted by IanMorr at 12:04 PM on June 12, 2009

Without more context it could be that the cousin is implying the narrator will one day, or soon, be too broke, to afford a nice tombstone (and the traditional dignity that presumably implies)? Is there anything in the story's plot that would support such a reading, such as financial competitiveness between the two?
posted by aught at 12:15 PM on June 12, 2009

I've skimmed the story, and this is difficult to get a lock on. My best guess is that the cousin's question implies that the narrator won't be sharing her cousin's tombstone; he's reneging on his earlier offer that she eventually be buried next to him. Something like that, anyhow. There's all this tension between them; the cousin has felt torn between his close friendship with the narrator and duty to his rather unpleasant wife, and now that his wife has died and decided she wants (after all) to be buried in the family plot, he's distancing himself from the narrator.
posted by jon1270 at 3:16 PM on June 12, 2009

Best answer: Here is what I got out of it. Tombstones are expensive and the cousin wants the narrator to defray the cost of his and his wife's by purchasing hers in advance and having the cousin and his wife's names engraved on it.

This, irrationally or not, makes the narrator angry. Why should she have to cover the cost of their tombstone by purchasing hers now? Notice the cousin isn't asking her to do this outright, but it is implied.

This interpretation is supported by the conversation the cousin and the narrator have when she visits him in the hospital:

"Have you been to the grave? he asked sharply.
"No, but I'm going this afternoon. I've booked the boatman," I said.
"You'll find Grania's name and mine on my grandfather's tomb...chiselled," he said.
"Chiselled." the word seemed to cut through the shafts of suffocating air between us.
I knew he wanted me to leave.

The cousin is upset that he was unable to purchase a new tombstone. And in fact just a few lines down the narrator comments on the fact that the names aren't on the tombstone at all, so perhaps because of the rift in the family whoever was in charge of putting the names on refused to do so. The cousin might have known that he and his wife would be in the family grave, however would remain unmarked without a new tombstone.
posted by ephemerista at 11:30 AM on June 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers! I marked ephemerista's as best because that one seems the most plausible to me.

Maybe someday I'll meet an expert in Irish tombstone practices who knows all about this.
posted by medusa at 7:24 PM on June 15, 2009

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