Challenge 432 Response
“Song of the Nightingale”
with members of the Bewildering Stories Review Board
In Ron Van Sweringen’s “Song of the Nightingale”:
- The story ends with Martha Hennings’ hoping that Philbus Martin might return some day. What fact in the story may lead the reader to surmise that his chances of returning are very slight?
- In a conventional conclusion, Philbus would return or Martha would receive news of his death in battle. Instead, the story has an “open ending.” What is the story really about?
[Editor 1] I was impressed by several factors:
The author could have written a bloody scenario but didn’t. He made a better choice. He wrote the story to reflect the experience of those who were touched by war but but left behind.
He wrote an accurate presentation of characters. With very little description, just through their actions and dialog, I could visualize each of them, even the farmer who came to gather his animals after the storm, despite the brevity of his presence. That scene was significant and the way I see it, set the mood for that ending because it was a representation of human nature. Neighbors took care of each other. Even if all they could do was feed the other’s animal.
The battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, remains the bloodiest battle in American history: well over 20,000 died. And 600,000 lives were lost during the Civil War. I doubt that at the time the story took place, Martha knew the number of lives being lost, but she knew men died in wars and the possibility of Philbus’ return was slim. She knew it when she offered to take care of the dog. He’d just lost his father; she didn’t let him go thinking that he had to abandon his dog.
And I agree the story is about the futility of war and the waste of young life, but it’s also about a contrasting element. It’s a tribute to human kindness and endurance. I don’t think the description of bloodshed would have touched me the way Martha did, waiting for the nightingale.
A moment of silent respect followed. Martha’s own feelings of anger against this war between the North and the South were again kindled by this boy’s plight. His eagerness to give up his young life pained her.
A great description of the inevitable ambivalence about war. A sweet story, in the best sense of the word. I think the story is really about Martha’s return to the human race; the conclusion isn’t really open-ended.
[Don Webb] And yet another editor was quite unmoved and dismissed the story as “apple pie.” While we may not share that reaction, I think it points to a minor weakness in the story: it is written exclusively for an audience familiar with American history. In particular, the narration counts on readers’ recognizing the significance of the seemingly incidental references to the war between the North and South and to the fateful year of 1862.
Consequently, readers who don’t know the history may miss the passing references outright, or they may fail to appreciate them and think that Philbus Martin is simply going to join the “militia” as a means of supporting himself for a while.
Further, Martha Hennings’ situation becomes hard to understand: she may seem to need little more than what a good hired hand could provide. It’s essential to know there was no such help to be had. The most we can see in the story, I think, is that it illustrates the plight of Confederate women during the War Between the States.
As for the ending, it depends on one’s point of view whether it’s “open” or not. I agree that Martha does reach an emotional conclusion. But Philbus’ eventual return is really another story entirely.
I’m reminded — somewhat paradoxically — of Wilhelm Raabe’s novella Else von der Tanne (1863). It is one of Raabe’s best works and has been unjustly neglected. Its setting is that of the Thirty Years War. But beyond that, it’s practically a mirror image of “Nightingale.” Its complex, almost baroque style is quite the opposite of Ron Van Sweringen’s trademark: simple realism. And its moral is pessimistic: withdrawal from the world is futile. In “Nightingale” we find not retreat but perseverance.
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