In the short story, “Miriam,” by Truman Capote, Mrs. H.T Miller is a widow living alone in her apartment. She lives by a strict daily schedule and one day she decides she wants to see a picture at a movie theater. While she is standing in line, she encounters a little girl, who immediately draws her curiosity. The little girl sees Mrs. Miller and asks her to buy tickets for her so she can see a movie. Mrs. Miller feels obligated to buy her a ticket, even though she knows that it is probably not the right thing to do. Later on, Mrs. Miller is visited by the girl, even though she has no idea where Mrs. Miller lives. Mrs. Miller is disturbed by Miriam, and how invasive she is. Miriam goes on to essentially steal Mrs. Miller’s cameo, and insists on staying in Mrs. Miller’s home until she makes her something to eat. As she is leaving, she takes a vase of paper roses, and throws it to the ground, shattering it. The next day, Mrs. Miller goes out because it is a nice spring day. She notices how separate she is from the other passersby, but brushes this off. She encounters an old, presumably poor, deformed man, who takes notice of her too, and begins to follow her. He does this for several blocks until Mrs. Miller enters a florist and subsequently begins her shopping spree. While shopping, she coincidentally buys everything Miriam asked her for when she visited the other day. On her return home, the day has gotten dark and it has started snowing. She enters her home and is immediately greeted by knocking, it’s pretty obvious who is knocking, and she tells her to go away. She sits several minutes through her buzzer, and believes Miriam to be gone. She opens the door to check, and encounters Miriam with a large box holding a doll. Out of curiosity, she lets her in, and is immediately stricken by panic when Miriam mentions how she is going to move in with her, and how she used to live with the disfigured old man. She runs to her downstairs neighbors, one of which comforts her, and another who takes a look upstairs to tell Miriam to get out of her apartment. Upon her neighbor’s return from her apartment, she is informed that there was nobody in there, and that there was no box and no doll. She is awe-stricken, and heads back upstairs to her apartment. She closes her eyes and has some sort of breakdown, where she hears the bureau doors opening and closing, the ruffle of a silk dress, and whispers. She finally opens her eyes to Miriam, who stares at her and says hello.
When I read Miriam for the first time, I was struck by how compelling the story was, and how it drew me in as a reader. I think the primary reason that the story was so riveting, had to do with Capote’s use of both characterization and ambiguity.
Capote does a stellar job of creating characters in “Miriam.” He begins the story by describing the character of Mrs. Miller. We can immediately picture this woman as someone very structured and predictable in her habits.
Mrs. H. T. Miller lived alone in a pleasant apartment…
Her interests were narrow, she had no friends to speak of, and she rarely journeyed farther than the corner grocery.
Her activities were seldom spontaneous; she kept the two rooms immaculate, smoked an occasional cigarette, prepared her own meals, and tended a canary.
With this description, the reader associates Mr. Miller with a sense of normality and sanity. We know that she does the same things each day, and it is when she deviates from her ordinary routine that she meets Miriam and the events occur that cause her to unravel and descend into madness.
Capote juxtaposes the normalness of Mrs. Miller with the strangeness of Miriam.
Her hair was the longest and strangest Mrs. Miller had ever seen: absolutely silver-white, like an albino’s.
…..the truly distinctive feature was not her hair, but her eyes; they were hazel, steady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever and because of their size, seemed to consume her small face.
Capote’s description of Miriam lets the reader know she is creepy, and the creepiness is compelling: as readers we are drawn to her and want to read more to find out what she will do next, just like Ms. Miller is drawn to Miriam in the beginning of the story and feels excited and changed by her presence.
Each time Miriam appears in the story her words and actions become bolder and also more mysterious. The description of Miriam appearing in the late night outside of Mrs. Miller’s apartment and keeping her finger on the button until Mrs. Miller answers the door, paints her as an intrusive character that is intended to disrupt Mr. Miller’s life. The more demands that Miriam makes, the weaker and more frazzled Mrs. Miller becomes.
Consider this exchange between Mrs. Miller and Miriam on p. 4 of the story:
Miriam glanced up and in her eyes was a look that was not ordinary. She was standing by the bureau, a jewel case opened before her. For a minute she studied Mrs. Miller, forcing their eyes to meet, and she smiled. “There’s nothing good here”, she said. “But I like this.” Her hand held a cameo brooch. “It’s charming”.
“Suppose—perhaps you better put it back”, said Mrs. Miller, feeling suddenly the need of some support.”
“But it’s beautiful and I want it,” said Miriam. “Give it to me.”
As she stood, striving to shape a sentence that would somehow save the brooch, it came to Mrs. Miller there was no one to whom she might turn; she was alone; a fact that had not been among her thoughts for a long time. Its sheer emphasis was stunning. But here in her own room in the hushed show city were evidences she could not ignore, or she knew with startling clarity, resist.
By reading the dialogue between the characters and the descriptions Capote gives of Mrs. Miller’s thoughts, the reader can tell that Mrs. Miller is unravelling and wants to keep reading to find out where the story will go.
With each encounter between Mrs. Miller and Miriam Capote’s characterization of Mrs. Miller becomes weaker and more desperate, while Miriam becomes stronger and more willful. The reader is then able to realize that Ms. Miller is sinking into madness, driven there by Miriam, and this is what drives the plot line of the story and makes it so interesting.
Intertwined with Capote’s use of characterization is his good use of ambiguity.
There are many things that are ambiguous in this story. Miriam herself is an ambiguous character. Who is she? She has the same name as Mrs. Miller, yet she has no last name and seems to come out of nowhere. This indicates that she could be Mrs. Miller’s Doppelganger—perhaps Mrs. Miller herself as a child. The reader could infer that this might be the case from the old-fashioned clothes that Miriam wears and the fact that she has never been to a movie. She also could be a delusion of Mrs. Miller’s, indicating that Mrs. Miller, in spite of her normalcy, is descending into schizophrenia. Her appearance changes Mrs. Miller’s personality and leads her to do things she would not normally do, such as going on a shopping spree and buying things that Miriam wants, such as white roses and sweets. No one else can see Miriam, so it is ambiguous whether she is a figment of Mrs. Miller’s imagination. Miriam demands entrance into Mrs. Miller’s life (incessantly ringing the doorbell, demanding her cameo, trying to move in with her), much like a delusion would move into a person’s mind and threaten to take over sane thought.
It is also ambiguous whether Miriam actually symbolizes death. Capote says in the first paragraph of the story that, “on her last birthday she was sixty-one.” Does Capote mean this in the past tense, and that Mrs. Miller had passed her last birthday of her life, or does he simply mean that she was sixty one years old at the time of the story? It is ambiguous. More indication that Miriam could be death, is the mysterious, shabby old man that Mrs. Miller sees on the street. As readers we are uncertain of his identity. Only that he appears, and at one point tip his cap to her in some form of recognition. Later on Miriam tells her that she used to live with an old man, who was terribly poor. Was the old man the same one that Mrs. Miller sees on the street? Could it be that Miriam is death and she was with the old man until he died and then moved on to Mrs. Miller? The tip of the hat could be recognition that she would be the next to die. Miriam being death would also explain why the neighbors cannot see her, because we do not actually witness death until it is our time to die. Miriam’s persistence in intruding on Mrs. Miller’s life also indicates that she might represent death because when death comes, it cannot be resisted, and it often does come in the night, just as Miriam did. The end of the story is ambiguous because it says:
The room was losing shape; it was dark and getting darker and there was nothing to be done about it; she could not lift her hand to light a lamp.
Do these words indicate that Mrs. Miller has died? When she feels an upward surge, “like a diver emerging from some deeper, greener depth,” does this mean that she has died and her soul is moving on? At the very end of the story, Capote says that Mrs. Miller lost only her identity to Miriam, and even though it seems that she finds herself again briefly, the last lines in the story tell that Mrs. Miller opens her eyes to see Miriam staring at her. The ambiguity of the ending leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion at the end, and is what makes the story memorable.
There are several things I can take away from Capote’s technique and use in my own writing. The first would be to carefully build the characters through both description and actions. I like the way Capote juxtaposed the very normal character of Mrs. Miller with the peculiar character of Miriam to create a story with subtle suspense. I also learned that the use of ambiguity can be very effective in drawing the interest of the reader and making them want to keep reading. Lastly, the use of ambiguity makes an impression on the reader and makes the story one that the reader will want to read and re-read to come up with different interpretations of its meaning.
- Is Mrs. Miller delusional? Who is Miriam? What does she represent?
- What happens after the story ends?
- What is the significance of them sharing names?