Literature Annotations


Dubus, Andre
Dancing After Hours


Genre Short Story (39 pp.)
KeywordsCaregivers, Catastrophe, Disability, Empathy, Loneliness, Sexuality
Summary

This story is told from the perspective of Emily, a forty-year-old spinster and former high school English teacher, who tends bar in a Massachusetts town. Emily has built a "disciplined" life, seeking to protect herself from the emotional pain of earlier failed romantic attachments, and from the cynicism that propelled her out of teaching--a cynicism born out of the apathy with which the students responded to her own passionate love of poetry. She has held herself aloof from the cautious social overtures of Jeff, the bar manager.

One night, a white man in a wheelchair and his black male attendant drive up to the bar. The arrival of this pair leads Emily to examine and re-assess her life. "Emily had worked [t]here for over seven years, had never had a customer in a wheelchair, and had never wondered why the front entrance had a ramp instead of steps." The disabled man, Drew, is quadriplegic (the result of diving into a wave at age 21, as Emily later finds out). But he and his attendant, Alvin, seem to be comfortable in the bar and with each other, and Emily relaxes.

As she observes Drew and watches how Alvin helps him, she tries to imagine their lives. "She thought of Drew . . . learning each movement he could perform alone, and each one he could not; learning what someone else had to help him do, and what someone had to do for him . . . So, was anyone boundless? Most of the time, you could avoid what disgusted you. But if you always needed someone to help you simply to live . . . you would . . . become disgusted by yourself."

Emily also imagines Jeff's life as a divorced father, and she can even empathize with Jeff's former wife, who left him. Jeff, she learns, had had a friend who became quadriplegic, the victim of a land mine during the war in Vietnam--hence the ramp entrance to the bar. As the story ends, Emily agrees to let Jeff cook lunch for her.

Commentary

Dancing After Hours is the title story in a collection that won the Rea Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The story is poetic and subtle in its power. At its heart is the empathic connection Emily makes with the disabled man. His arrival on the scene jolts her out of the shell with which she has shielded herself from pain. By imagining his life, and that of his caregiver, she can allow herself to see the good qualities in Jeff, a decent man with whom she might be able to escape from loneliness. Emily finally accepts pain as an inevitable accompaniment to a lived life.

Andres Dubus was a prize-winning author before he was severely injured in a highway accident in 1986, and left permanently confined to a wheelchair. In addition to demonstrating the power of empathy, the story provides a glimpse of the impact of disabling injury on the most mundane details of existence, on the role that caregivers play for individuals so affected, and on the remarkable capacity of some people to become reconciled to the effects of catastrophe. Dubus himself became severely depressed following his accident and its sequelae, but eventually recovered and resumed his writing career (The New York Times, March 23, 1996).

SourceDancing After Hours
PublisherKnopf
Edition1996
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Aull, Felice
Date of Entry 02/17/97
Last Revised 07/28/10