By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Jockey’ is a short story by the American writer Carson McCullers (1917-67). McCullers wrote ‘The Jockey’ in 1941, when she was just 24 years old. The story is about a jockey named Bitsy Barlow, who confronts his trainer while the man is dining with a bookmaker and a rich man, about an accident involving Bitsy’s friend, a fellow jockey named McGuire.
‘The Jockey’: plot summary
The story takes place in a hotel dining-room shortly after a race. A jockey named Bitsy Barlow stands against the wall and observes a group of three men dining at a table. These men are Sylvester, a trainer; Simmons, a bookkeeper or ‘bookie’; and a rich man, whose name is not revealed. It is assumed that this rich man is the owner of the horse which Bitsy had ridden in the race.
The men notice Bitsy and Simmons and Sylvester explain to the rich man why the jockey is so bitter. A friend of his, an Irish jockey named McGuire, had been badly injured in a race. Simmons thinks that Bitsy is ‘crazy’ but the rich man wants the other two men to invite the jockey over to their table.
In the end, Bitsy invites himself over to join them, though he is noncommittal and churlish when they attempt to engage him in conversation. Talk soon comes round to McGuire, the Irish jockey who was injured, and Sylvester’s feeble attempt to display a caring attitude towards Bitsy’s injured friend only further angers him.
Sylvester tries to get Bitsy to go upstairs to his room, but the jockey refuses to do so. Having drunk a whiskey, Bitsy goes to the bar and orders a Manhattan cocktail. Sylvester warns him about drinking, but the warning falls on deaf ears. The men discuss how the jockey has put on weight and the rich man says he shouldn’t be drinking. Meanwhile, the jockey is the only one in the bar who is drinking alone: everyone else has companionship of some kind.
Bitsy returns to the dining-room and to the table where the three men are seated, bringing up the matter of his friend’s injury again. When Sylvester insists that he be reasonable, Bitsy flies into a rage and chews and spits out some of the potatoes on the dinner plate. He calls the men ‘libertines’ for sitting around dining well and caring about little else, before walking out. The man don’t speak for some time after he has left.
‘The Jockey’: analysis
‘The Jockey’ might be analysed symbolically, with the jockey and the race being extended metaphors for the individual’s place in the world and the experience of the outsider in a world they feel increasingly at odds with. During the race, the jockey is clearly the star attraction (along with the horse he rides), but behind him there are the people who make the race happen and who profit from it: the jockey’s trainer, the bookmakers who take bets on the race, and the men with the money who own the horse and put up the cash in the first place.
But the jockey has become alienated from his own life: after the race is over, he stands against the wall and watches the men, the star rider becoming the observer rather than the observed. He has become a wallflower, after having been centre-stage.
The experience of his friend, McGuire, has clearly reminded him that his profession is a dangerous one and the lack of genuine concern evinced by Sylvester and the other men about the plight of poor McGuire is a stark warning to Bitsy regarding his own status: he may be valuable to them now he can race (and win), but if he was injured and unable to race, he would be quickly forgotten and passed over, as McGuire appears to have been.
Money clearly has little value for Bitsy. He pays for his drink with a fifty-dollar bill and doesn’t bother to count the change he receives: a sign that he has made plenty of money, but it means nothing to him. This is in stark contrast to the three men at the table, whose conversation is dominated by, among other things, money. Sylvester comments to the rich man that he’s heard that Saratoga, where the story takes place, is the wealthiest place in the world in August, because of all the rich people who flock there for their holidays.
These men treat Bitsy like a child. His professional name is presumably a nickname, perhaps a childhood name given to him in reference to his diminutive height: like all jockeys, he is short. Sylvester calls him ‘kid’ and, when the trainer tries to get the jockey to disappear up to his hotel room, he likens this to a parent sending their child up to his bedroom ‘like a good boy’.
But the point, of course, is that Bitsy is more mature in many ways than the wealth-obsessed men who surround him. Carson McCullers appears to be using the jockey to expose the rather vapid and superficial lives led by such men, who epitomise Thorstein Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption with their dinners in lavish dining rooms and their talk of wealth.