When Miss Elva Keene, and elderly and infirm woman living in rural Maine, appears to be getting phone calls in the middle of the night, what is really happening, or at least what really matters, is that she is remembering the most significant event in her life. The memory is at first faint, like the call, and difficult to trace, but it becomes more vivid, and detailed, as it gains hold in her mind, leading ultimately to an overall assessment of the meaning of her life.
“Black Leather Jackets” was also about an overall assessment, an assessment of the value or goodness of humanity as a contribution to the goodness of the universe. We noted that it is not clear how such assessments can be made. What are we measuring and how do we assign value, positive or negative to events, properties, individuals, or cultures?
What about individual lives? Does it make sense to assess the entirety of a human life and declare it either as a success or a failure? “Night Call” doesn’t make such an assessment from the point of view of an observer of Elva’s life, but from Elva’s perspective. It represents her own reflection on her life, from the inside, from the data of her own memory and imagination.
Although self-reflection makes use of data that may not be available to others, self-reflection is still subject to the influence of values and beliefs acquired through interaction with others. The conclusions Elva reaches about her worth as a human being, of the rightness or wrongness of her past actions, are made in the context of the values and beliefs of the culture to which she belongs. The memory that haunts Elva is the memory of the car accident that killed her fiance. She believes that she caused his death because she insisted on driving, and his death resulted from the crash. However, although she played a causal role in the accident that led to his death, it doesn’t follow that she is morally responsible for his death. Yet she feels that insisting on driving was wrong, not because it led to his death, but for another reason.
How could Elva’s insistence on driving be wrong, if she was, as we expect, a competent adult driver? In the context of the time, it would have been very unusual for a woman to drive, when her male partner was capable of driving. Elva’s insistence that she drive violated the social norms regarding gender. Elva insists on doing something that just was not done. A female did not drive when a male was able to. She clearly sees the death of her fiance as punishment for her violation of that norm.
Now, many years later, as an elderly woman, Elva is haunted not only by her memory of her insistence on driving the car on the fateful day, but by the realization that she had always insisted on getting her way in her relationship with her fiance, and that she always did get her way. Now, as she attempts to access her relationship to the past, her insistence on having her way makes that impossible. Better put, she thinks that it is her dominating personality that makes it impossible to regain her relationship to her deceased fiance.
Elva’s sense that she bears the complete responsibility for her lover’s death, and the lonely existence that she’s endured, is grounded in her interpretation of tendency to take control and make the decisions as violating the norms of behavior for a woman. Her global assessment of her life depends on viewing the violation of gender norms as the central ingredient in her lonely and unfulfilled existence.
One can, of course, view Elva’s existence as tragic without appealing to the dimension of gender. The death of her lover due to an accident that occurred while she was at the wheel would be difficult to get beyond under the best conditions. As the story unfolds here, however, it is clear that the causal chain that leads to the accident begins with her at-the-time gender inappropriate behavior.
Our gender norms have changed. “Night Call” could not be recast into the present. There isn’t a possible world in which we acknowledge the right of a female to drive but find someone lamenting that they exercised that right to the degree that Elva laments it here.