By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Visitor’ is a very short story by the American writer Lydia Davis (born 1947). The story is narrated by a parent expecting the arrival of their unborn child: the ‘visitor’ of the story’s title. Davis uses this premise to compare people at the beginning and end of life through having her narrator tell two brief anecdotes about old men they knew of.
Like many of Davis’s fictions, ‘The Visitor’ is perhaps better regarded as a piece of flash fiction – or, perhaps, by using another term altogether, as we’ll discuss in due course. You can read ‘The Visitor’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Visitor’: plot summary
The story is narrated by someone expecting a visitor to their house. The narrator tells us that this visitor will be bald, incontinent, and lack the power of speech; he will also be unable to take care of himself properly. The narrator knows all this despite not having met this visitor yet. Although the story never openly states this, the ‘visitor’ the narrator is expecting is their unborn child.
The second paragraph discusses an old Indian gentleman who stayed with the narrator’s sister in London. This man ended up moving into her house for several months and rearranging her haphazard bookshelves so the books were organised into some sort of system. He died a few years later in a hospital, having refused medical treatment on religious grounds.
The narrator tells us that this Indian man reminds them of another visitor: this time, the old father of a friend of the narrator’s. This man is slowly fading away in a nursing home, having been incontinent (like the narrator’s expected guest) for some time. There is also a suggestion that he is suffering from some sort of dementia, since instead of praising his daughter at her wedding, he spoke about Communism when he got up to give his speech.
The final paragraph of Davis’ story returns to the visitor whom the narrator and their partner will soon receive. They have set up a special room for the visitor (baby), where they will be able to listen out for when he cries during the night and needs their assistance. The narrator observes that, one day, he may return the favour and look after them, but they don’t expect this of him. The narrator ends the story by stating that both of them would give up almost anything for him (even though they haven’t even met him yet).
‘The Visitor’: analysis
‘The Visitor’ is almost palindromic, or at least symmetrical, in structure: it contains four paragraphs, the first and last of which focuses on the baby the narrator is expecting. The middle two paragraphs then discuss two different kinds of ‘visitor’ to other people’s homes. This structure means that the two anecdotes involving people at the other end of life from the narrator’s expected ‘visitor’ are nestled within the narrator’s announcement of their imminent parenthood.
This invites us to consider how, when people grow old, they often decline into what Jaques, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, called ‘second childishness’: incontinent, unable to look after oneself, and often unable to communicate clearly with those around them. The old man in the story’s third paragraph offers a miniature portrait of dementia and, given its juxtaposition with the imminent arrival of the narrator’s baby, encourages us to think about how many people exit life the way they enter it: helpless, shut off from those around them, effectively living in their own world from which others around them are excluded.
The same is true of the Indian gentleman in the story’s second paragraph, to an extent. There, the barrier is purely linguistic rather than mental: the narrator tells us that the man speaks imperfect English and anyone who came into the room (another kind of ‘visitor’, if you like) struggled to understand the precise nature of his system.
But Davis also subtly hints at the differences between infancy and old age as it is depicted in ‘The Visitor’. For example, whereas the father of the narrator’s friend involuntarily loses his mental clarity and becomes ‘smaller’ (as if turning back into a baby?), the Indian gentleman chooses to refrain from receiving medical treatment – whether it would save his life or simply prolong it, making it less painful – on religious grounds.
On a related note, the narrator tells us that they will raise their baby not with the expectation that he will one day look after them in their senile old age, but this possibility is nevertheless mentioned, because it is a cultural tradition (in many cultures, in fact) and a way of repaying those who helped to bring us into the world. Here, it is up to the child of the parents whether he chooses to look after them, or whether they will end up in a nursing home like the man in the third paragraph.
Nevertheless, every word counts in a Lydia Davis story, and how we should inflect that ‘really’ (‘… but we don’t really expect it’) is open to interpretation. Is there already a suggestion that this mother (or father – what assumptions do we make about the gender of the narrator?) would be disappointed, even hurt maybe, if the child who has not yet even arrived in the world would refuse to look after them when they needed taking care of?
Similarly, that penultimate word of the story, ‘almost’, invites us to ponder: what would a parent not willingly sacrifice for their children? And does this question come laden with the same expectations as what we’d expect a child to do for its parents? Presumably not. And yet why not, if the roles are effectively reversed when the child enters the prime of life and the parent descends into ‘second childishness’?
In our analysis of another Davis story, ‘The Caterpillar’, we discussed a speech given by the literary critic Christopher Ricks at the 2013 Man Booker Prize awards ceremony. When he presented Lydia Davis with the award for that year, Ricks proposed the word ‘observations’ as a term for categorising Lydia Davis’s short stories, anecdotes, parables, fables, and apophthegms (these were among the other terms Ricks suggested, along with the more sui generis label, devoir).
Of course, none of them can perhaps do full justice to a writer whose originality renders her, to a large degree, uncategorisable. Nevertheless, Ricks’s ‘observations’ seems a useful jumping-off point for a consideration and analysis of a Lydia Davis piece. As Ricks observes (of course), the word ‘observations’ refers to both the things noticed and the things we say about them: both ‘the remarkings and the remarks’.