Posted in Short Stories

Mary Lerner: Little Selves


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So she folded quiet hands beneath her heart, there where no child had ever lain, yet where now something grew and fattened on her strength.  And she seemed given over to pleasant revery.

Published in 1915, Mary Lerner’s story “Little Selves” tells of a time and place when death didn’t seem so – fatal.  I find it interesting that this story comes onto the literary landscape just before the destruction of World War I would usher in a flood of disillusionment in American Literature.  In the story, death isn’t sentimentalized nor is its finality diminished. Death is death – but it doesn’t stop life from being life.

Margaret O’Brien, 75 years old, knows her life is near its end.  As she lays on what could be her deathbed, neighbors visit as well as versions of her younger self in what most would consider dreams or imagination. Some of her relatives consider her to not be in her right mind as she mumbles about her childhood.  Her niece Anna knows better.  Both Margaret and Anna came to America from Ireland when they were young.  Lerner effectively puts this immigration solidly behind every aspect of the narrative while only briefly mentioning it outright.


Through her characters, Lerner implies that life and death had a magical quality in the “Old Country”.  A magic that those American born, such as Margaret’s priest and her nephew-in-law, don’t and can’t understand.  This story is very similar to Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” but it has a charm all it’s own.

I selected this story when I drew the King of Clubs for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This story is included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

3 thoughts on “Mary Lerner: Little Selves

  1. I’ll have to look this one up – since I own that collection too. Sounds like a great story, and you comment about the irony of it appearing just before the large scale disillusionment of WWI is interesting…

    1. I had no idea what it would be about except that I read in John Updike’s introduction that it is one of a number of stories about immigrating to America that he included in this anthology. I think this story only says something like “as a young woman, Margaret made the long trip to America”. But everything about the story drives that “trip” home (so to speak).

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