A fundamental issue facing any writer is the choice between narration and scene. The frequently-offered advice to “show don’t tell” can be restated as “when in doubt, go to scene.” However, in “Miracle Polish” by Steven Millhauser, the author goes mostly to narrative, burying the majority of the dialogue in narrative paragraphs and creating half scenes. Why has Millhauser made this artistic decision? He chooses telling over showing to reflect the theme of “Miracle Polish” —a life not lived, not in scene, but a life reflected by mirrors.
“Miracle Polish” by Steven Millhauser is told in first-person as the unnamed narrator reflects on a past incident in which he loses his companion Monica and winds up in a complete state of unease. The inciting incident: the narrator buys a bottle of miracle polish from a door-to-door salesman. After cleaning a mirror with the liquid, the main character sees his reflection in a new light, not younger or better looking but fresh and changed: “What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life” (110). Obsessed by a “surge of well-being” (115) felt whenever he sees himself in any of his polished mirrors, he recognizes the need for a second opinion about them and initially welcomes Monica’s view. Finally, she becomes frustrated by what she sees as his excessive preference for her “fine resilience” in the glass (112) and gives him an ultimatum to choose “Me or her” (118). At first he justifies to himself that the reflected “her’ is “the true Monica, the hidden Monica, buried beneath years of discouragement” and says: “Far from escaping into a world of polished illusions, I was able to see, in the depths of those mirrors the world no longer darkened by diminishing hopes and fading dreams” (118). In the end, nonetheless, he takes down all the mirrors and invites Monica to witness his throwing out the miracle polish and shattering the mirrors with a hammer. As a result of his apparent frenzy, she runs away, her mirrored self is crushed, and he is left with the “unbearable hope” that one day the stranger with the miracle polish will return.
In “Miracle Polish” Millhauser chooses to use narration throughout the majority of the text and often describes in detail and secondhand what easily could have been revealed in scene. The opening paragraph framed in hindsight establishes the indirect style predominant in the rest of the story: “I should have said no to the stranger at the door, with his skinny throat and his black sample case that pulled him a little to the side,” (108). Looking back in a conditional mood, the narrator describes what the stranger looks like with “the glint of desperation in his eyes,” how he moves himself into the house as the narrator “stepped aside,” and what the stranger “explained in a mournful voice”— particulars that Millhauser could have disclosed in scene with action and dialogue. So why doesn’t he go into scene? Show instead of tell? The answer lies in the thematic elements as style fits story.
The author’s choice of first-person narration, filtering the events through the main character’s consciousness, imitates the main character’s life that becomes filtered through the mirrors transformed by the miracle polish. As he becomes enamored by the sense of well-being he feels when looking into the buffed glass, he begins to live one remove from those around him, sees not what is but what once was, perhaps could be. He notes of his reflection: “He looked back at me—the thought sprang to mind—like a man who believed in things” (111). Compelled to buy and polish more and more mirrors, he moves deeper into the interior and away from the world outside his house.
This interior life also fits a first-person narrator, difficult to use due to the strain of separating the character telling the story from the character living it. Yet in “Miracle Polish” this hard separation is barely needed. The only character ever truly in scene is Monica.
She offers potential for the narrator to move outside himself and experience the present that Millhauser could enact in real time through scene with action and dialogue. Indeed, after Monica’s appearance in the house, the author uses several half scenes where she has a line of dialogue, but the main character does not respond and moves into interpretation. For instance, at the peak of his collecting mirrors, Millhauser writes: “Once, she said, ‘You know, sometimes I think you like me better there’—she pointed to a mirror—‘than here’—she pointed to herself. She said it teasingly with a little laugh, but in her look was an anxious question. As if to prove her wrong, I turned my full attention to her. Before me I saw a woman with a worried forehead and unhappy eyes. I imagined her gazing out at me from all the mirrors of my house … full of hope” (115).
Rather than letting us hear the laugh or see Monica’s nervous behavior, Millhauser wants us to hear and see her indirectly through the narrator. Indirection allows the reader to experience removal from the immediate in much the same way that the narrator does. In these half scenes the dialogue becomes folded within an interpretative paragraph.
One pure scene in real time without summary or interpretation occurs when Monica demands that the main character choose either the physical Monica or her mirrored image—“Me or her” (118). This scene comes after the couple’s Saturday picnic at the lake where Monica is invigorated by the sun while the narrator feels oppressed by it. He says: “…the heat pressed down on me…But when I opened my front door…the good feeling returned…” (116). She calls the outing “a perfect day” (117). The active involvement in life, outside and under the sun, prompts the full scene as she and the main character exchange words and she walks out. This is the turning point for him—he can pick either corporal Monica (the one shown in scene) and the outside world or mirrored Monica and the interior world. Actually, he has no option since without the fleshly Monica the mirrored Monica cannot exist.
Millhauser’s first-person narration with an emphasis on telling intensifies the inwardness of the narrator who surrenders and selects physical Monica but ironically loses her in the process. He can destroy the glass but not his passion for what he perceives as the mirrored truth. In the act of killing the mirrored Monica, his rage drives the other Monica away, leaving him without her or his mirrors and with only the faint hope of the salesman’s return.
Each writer must find the balance between narration and scene that fits her story. A physical story with an external plot would be muted by too much narration. Physical action is best shown. But an internal story, where the conflict is in the character’s mind, works in a different way. Showing the character’s inward strife would require the reader to discern it through the reaction of the other characters or the gestures and posture of the main character. In choosing when to tell and when not to, the writer should consider, as Millhauser does, the thematic elements of his story.
Millhauser, Steven. “Miracle Polish.” The Best American Short Stories 2012. Ed. Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 108-121. Print.
Chella Courington is the author of six chapbooks of poetry and fiction. Flying South and Love Letter to Biology 250 are forthcoming. Her poetry and fiction appear in numerous journals including The Los Angeles Review, SmokeLong, and The Collagist. With another writer and two cats, she lives in California.