Arthur Miller’s short story, The Misfits, is a story I go back to over and over again. It’s an intense study of toxic masculinity that tethers its three cowboys to their fates as firmly as the wild mustangs they hunt are tethered to the heavy truck tyres at the end of the tale.
A tragedy of the story is that Miller used it as the skeleton on which to build his screenplay for the John Huston film of the same name, and of the similarly named characters. The fame of that film, with its doomed cast – Clark Gable died soon after the filming was finished, with Monroe and Montgomery Clift following not long afterwards – has totally eclipsed the written story, even, seemingly, in the mind of its author.
In his autobiography, Timebends, and elsewhere Miller never seems to recognise or refer to what the original story was about. Yet it is one of those stories that, for me at least, remains a masterpiece.
The clue to its difference from the film, and to the focus of its theme, lies at the end. There are two endings to the story, in fact. In a closing page we are told of the captured mustangs, a stallion and a mare tethered with ropes to those heavy tyres, and a foal tethered to the mare by bonds that it cannot break. But before that the events in which the three protagonists have been involved are drawn to a close, and two of them drive off literally, into a metaphorical sunset. Those two are the ageing cowboy, Gay Langland and his younger acolyte, Perce. In the film it is Langland and the woman Roslyn who make that exit.
Langland, in his mid forties looks towards ‘when he would begin turning grey’, fighting the recognition that his life is slipping out of his control. Perce is a young rodeo rider desperately trying to bolster belief in his own life of chancing injury and death, with no hope of ever ‘amounting to anything’. The two prop each other up throughout the tale. Between them has come the figure of Roslyn, a middle aged woman from the east who has seen through the fiction of their lives and is about to return home. Langland fears that she will take Perce away from him, and the precarious life support that the money she gives him for doing odd jobs will go too. Yet he has also used the attraction between them, not to keep her close, but to keep Perce close to him:
‘Want to come up north with me….?’
‘I think I’ll stay around here..’
‘And Roslyn drive us up…..’
Perce and Langland are fighting to maintain the belief that the way they live is ‘better than wages’, but we know, and they fear, that it isn’t. ‘The feeling had come to him [Langland] that he had somehow passed the kidding point’. ‘Gay never thought to say he [Perce] ought to be making something of his life’. Perce has turned down the chance to teach at a riding academy, a secure, well paid job with accommodation thrown in. Yet Gay cannot deny that the money they will make from the mustangs is pitiful.
‘..he had put in three days for thirty five dollars, and there would be no way to explain it so it made sense.’
The Roslyn of this story is never present, except in the mind of Langland, and in his conversations with Perce, yet this conjuring of her was sufficiently strong for Miller, and Houston, to see her as the major and present character of the film, but in doing so they skewed the focus, and skewed the characters and insights about them that make the short story so powerful. They lost too, the poignant symbolism of the wild mustangs destined to be turned into dog-meat.
The third cowboy, Guido, is not part of any triangle, but acts as a device enabling the author to give us an alternative view of the two main characters. It’s made plain that he has no interest in Roslyn, or in anybody else: ‘it pleasured him to know that he was free of that’ [‘yearning for a woman’]. Neither is he afflicted by the self deceptions of the other two. He has a valuable and saleable skill, for he is a pilot, but he has refused jobs, though ‘they wanted him for an airline pilot’. He knows too, that his ageing plane may one day kill him, and that it is unlikely to provide him with the income to stave off that future. His detachment is explained by his back-story, as a widower who lost both wife and child in childbirth a few years before.
He also serves a practical role in the events of the story. He will fly into the mountains to find, and drive out the wild horses. He will drive Langland’s beat up old truck while the other two perch on the back, trying to lasso them. In both situations this creates an opportunity for Langland and Perce to have their conversations, and for Langland to reflect upon them and to recall past events involving Roslyn.
Having served these functions, with the horses captured, Guido flies off and out of the story a full four pages before the end, leaving Perce and Langland alone for one more conversation, in which Perce will agree to accompany him – ‘You comin’ up to Thighbone with me?’ – the self-deceptions of both men intact as they drive off.
‘Gay felt more comfortable now that the younger man would not be leaving him. He drove in contentment.’
The film is enjoyable to watch, but it does not begin to examine the issues raised in the short story.
The written story is not about Roslyn, but about an older man and a young one propping up each other’s belief in a lifestyle that will lead them to inevitable disaster. Roslyn, like Guido, is part of the mechanism that stresses that relationship, and forces it to a re-calibration. In the closing sequence the horses wait, tied to heavy truck tyres, the stallion having been brought to his knees, as Gayland fears he too will be; the mare similarly tethered and unable to save her foal from her own fate, as it, though running free, will not leave her. It’s easy to see Perce’s tragedy in that foal, for Roslyn has not been able to save him from his attachment to Langland – and early in the tale we have seen him failing to connect in a phone conversation to his own mother. The symbolism is lost on the two protagonists, but not on the reader.
Langland, by winning Perce’s agreement to go with him in the future, has doomed the pair of them as surely as the wild mustangs are doomed.
It’s a pity that the fame of the film has thrown the short story into such obscurity; that the film’s story might be assumed to be that of the earlier piece; a pity that the change is hardly mentioned in writings about the adaptation; that the short story seems to be forgotten, unknown, and undervalued in its own right. But clear of images of the film, this story ‘catches wonder by surprise’, to quote Miller on the form, and is well worth a reading, or several.