By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘There Was a Man, There Was a Woman’ is a short story from Sandra Cisneros’ 1991 collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. In this brief vignette or piece of flash fiction, a narrator describes two people, a man and a woman, who lead similar lives despite never having met each other.
The themes of ‘There Was a Man, There Was a Woman’ include loneliness, human sympathy, and the quiet desperation of many people’s routine lives. Before we offer an more in-depth analysis of the story, here’s a brief summary, or paraphrase, of the ‘plot’ of this brief vignette.
‘There Was a Man, There Was a Woman’: plot summary
This brief story comprises just three paragraphs. In the first paragraph, the third-person narrator tells us that there was a man and there was a woman. Every other Friday, when he got paid at his work, the man went to a bar and spent his money. The woman went to the same bar every other Friday and did the same: spent her money after she got paid.
However, the man got paid every second and fourth Friday of the month, while the woman received her wages in the alternate weeks, the first and third Friday. The narrator explains that this is how the man and the woman did not know each other, despite frequenting the same bar in the same town on regular Friday nights.
The second paragraph turns to consider the behaviour of this man and woman when they were (separately) at the bar. The man drank numerous drinks because he believed it would encourage him to lose his social inhibitions and talk more readily with his friends, but usually he remained silent. The woman did exactly the same. Instead, both of them drank their beer and laughed loudly, but said nothing.
In the story’s final paragraph, the narrator tells us that when the woman got home after her Friday nights at the bar, she would raise her eyes to the moon and cry. When the man got home, he would lie in his bed and consider the same moon, and would think about all of the many millions of people who had looked at the moon before him. The light of the moon streamed in through his window and glowed on his bedsheets. The man looked at it and swallowed, as if trying not to cry.
‘There Was a Man, There Was a Woman’: analysis
Much of the emotional power of a story like ‘There Was a Man, There Was a Woman’ stems from what the story does not explicitly state, but instead hints at via minor details and suggestions.
Because of Sandra Cisneros’ juxtaposition of these two people’s lives which never quite intersect, one male and one female, we can deduce that the story is about two people who long to meet a romantic partner but who never manage to meet the ‘right’ person, because of a quirk of fate (and different working schedules and paydays).
There is a grim irony, then, in these two people being supposedly so compatible and well-suited to each other never being able to meet and strike up a relationship, because although they prefer to drink in the same bar (and drink for identical reasons: to overcome their natural diffidence and emotional shyness), and are both of a romantic disposition (consider how they both look up at the moon when they go home to their separate beds), they never bump into each other on the same nights.
Indeed, there’s something of the conceit found in Andrew Marvell’s classic metaphysical poem ‘The Definition of Love’ about ‘There Was a Man, There Was a Woman’, with its description of two parallel lives which, because parallel, will never intersect:
For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow’r depose.
As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
But this invites us to consider something else which is latent in Cisneros’ story. Are the man and woman in her story really so well-suited to each other, just because they are of similar dispositions and drink in the same bar? If they are both cripplingly shy and quiet around their friends, which of them would lead the conversation if they were ever to meet? Or would they simply pass their time together in silence, too? Sometimes opposites attract, rather than similarities (or parallels).
In other words, Cisneros’ story can alternatively be read – perhaps slightly against the grain of its main, emotionally charged meaning involving thwarted potential companionship between two like-minded people – as a story not about two people who should have met and found love together, but as a story about the many people who pass their lives in quiet loneliness, regardless of whom they meet.
The gentle tragedy of the story is not that they never met each other, but that they never met someone to complement them (whether or not that someone would have been the other one in the story, or some other person).
Since modernism in the early twentieth century, many modern short stories have contained characters who undergo a kind of epiphany: a revelation or realisation which prompts them to reassess their view of the world or of themselves.
We might view the sudden invasion of the moonlight into the man’s bedroom as part of a similar process: his realisation that many other people have looked at the same moon before him prompts him to become aware of the delicate links connecting human beings together, and our shared experiences.