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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ray Bradbury's "Love Potion": Learning from the Masters

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman 

Ray Bradbury’s “Love Potion,” one of the flowers of evil in his Summer Morning, Summer Night anthology, is a deceptively simple tale, the unexpected twist at the end of which not only horrifies, but also delights.

Reclusive sisters, “large as sofas. . . and stuffed with time,” Miss Nancy Jillet and her sister Julia take “the air at four in the morning,” when there is no one in the sleeping town in which they live to see them except the policeman walking his beat. While the two old ladies are rocking in the chairs on their front porch at two o’clock in the morning, eighteen-year-old Alice Ferguson, unable to sleep, “happened upon the Jillets.”

The women, after identifying their visitor, both by name and by age, tell her that she’s in love but that “he doesn’t love you,” which is why Alice is “unhappy and out walking late.” Nancy, however, assures her that she has come “to the right place.” Alice says that she “didn’t come,” but the woman shush her, saying that they will help her by giving her a “love potion.” They give her a green bottle, the contents of which Nancy describes as harmless ingredients:
“White flowers for the moon, summer-myrtle for the stars, lilacs for the rain, a red rose for the heart, a walnut for the mind. . . . Some clear water from the well to make all run well, and a sprig of pepper-leaf to warm his blood. Alum to make his fear grow small. And a drop of white cream so that he sees your skin like a moonstone.”
When Alice asks whether such a potion will “work,” Nancy assures her that it will; she and Julia have spent many years determining “why we never courted and never married,” and the results of their long investigation into these matters “boils down to” the potion they’ve given to her. Alice will be the first ever to try the potion, Nancy assures their visitor, because “it’s not just something you give to everyone or make and bottle all the time.” The sisters have too many interests, Nancy implies, for them to spend all their time on any single pursuit, even the manufacture and bottling of a love potion:
“We’ve done a lot of things in our life, the house is full of antimacassars we’ve knitted, framed mottos, bedspreads, stamp collections, coins, we’ve done everything, we’ve painted and sculpted and gardened by night so no one would bother us.”
It was while they were gardening, in fact, that they’d first seen Alice, “looking sad,” and had surmised that she was so “because of a man.” That was the moment that the sisters had resolved to try to help Alice, and they’d straightaway picked flowers from among the plants of their garden. All Alice needs to do to win her beloved is to add three drops to a beverage, “soda pop, lemonade or iced-tea.”

Visiting the man of her dreams, he tells her, “I do love you.” Alice replies, “Now I won’t need this,” and shows him the green bottle which contains the sisters’ love potion. Perhaps she has already mentioned the topic, in a joke, to him, because he is not surprised by her production of the bottle and even advises her to “pour a little out. . .before you take it back, so it won’t hurt their feelings.”

She does so, returning the rest to the Jillet sisters, assuring them, in answer to their question, that she administered a dose to her beloved. The women surprise Alice by announcing that they themselves will sample the potion, so that they will “have beautiful dreams and dream we’re young again.”

The next morning, sirens awaken Alice, and she runs to her window, looks out, and sees “Miss Nancy and Miss Julia Jillet sitting on their front porch, not moving, in broad daylight, a thing they had never done before, their eyes closed; their hands dangling at their sides, their mouths gaping strangely.” They have about them the look of death, and the green bottle is set before them:
There was something about them, something that suggested sheaths from which the iron blade is gone. This, Alice Ferguson saw, and the crowd moving in, and the police, and the coroner, putting his hand up for the green bottle that glittered brightly in the sunlight, sitting on the rail.
Because of the apparent kindliness of the aged sisters and their seemingly sincere desire to “help” their beautiful, young, lovelorn neighbor, Bradbury deceives his reader, as it were, into believing the elderly sisters to be harmless. Reclusive spinsters, the may seem a bit eccentric, believing, as they do, in love potions, but they are also apparently harmless, even lovable, old women. However, the reader’s realization that the “love potion” that they gave Alice was really the same poison that they drank as a means of committing suicide shows that the women were anything but the kindly old ladies they appeared to be. Believing themselves to have committed murder, by killing the young man for whom Alice mooned, but who did not love her in return, the women next kill themselves, apparently to put themselves beyond the reach of the law.

Bradbury’s story ends upon an eerie note, and the shock of the ending makes the reader reread the short story for clues as to what would motivate two seemingly nice old ladies to take their own lives after attempting to murder a stranger.

It would be disappointing if Bradbury had taken the cheap way out by leaving the story a mystery, but he is too good a writer to rely upon a dues ex machina. His story does, indeed, contain clues that make the sisters’ monstrous deeds intelligible. The women are reclusive. They avoid others, keeping company only with one another. When they go outside their house, it is early in the morning, when the town is “undercover.” Upon meeting them, “in the milky dark of 2 a.m.,” Alice recalls “the tales of their solitary confinement in life,” a phrase which suggests not only isolation, but also punishment.

If their self-imposed isolation from others is a form of punishment, for what offense are they enforcing it? Their intuitive understanding of the cause of Alice’s unhappiness is a clue. Upon seeing Alice walking past their garden, “looking sad,” they recognize the cause of her unhappiness, as being “a man,” perhaps because a man, in their past, had caused one or both of them to feel similar sorrow. They have spent a good many years, Nancy tells Alice, trying to “figure out why we never courted and never married,” and, having done so, they have concocted their “love potion.” Although it may be “too late” for them to “help” themselves, they can “help” Alice, who seems to suffer from the same heartache that had such a devastating effect upon their own lives.

Whatever the reason for the failure of romance in the days of their youth, it seems that the spinsterish sisters blame themselves, for they have, as it were, sentenced themselves to “solitary confinement in life,” becoming recluses whose only company they keep is one another’s. They have spent the long years, “since 1910,” as they confide to Alice, when, possibly, their hopes for love were dashed, in activities that seem to have been designed to sublimate their sexual drives:
“We’ve done a lot of things in our life, the house is full of antimacassars we’ve knitted, framed mottos, bedspreads, stamp collections, coins, we’ve done everything, we’ve painted and sculpted and gardened by night so no one would bother us.”
Possibly to spare Alice such a lonely and unfulfilling life as theirs has been, despite the many hobbies and pastimes with which they’ve attempted to fill their lives--lives which, nevertheless, the narrator characterizes as “stuffed with time and dust and snow”--they gave her a potent poison to administer to the object of her unrequited love. It is a gesture of kindness that is anything but kind, but the spinsters have apparently long since passed beyond rationality, supposing that the murder of the young man who doesn’t share Alice’s love would be justifiable if it brings Alice relief after her initial grief.

Believing themselves to have accomplished their mission, they drink the poison themselves, thus adding the crime and sin of suicide to that those of murder. Their own unrequited or failed love, it seems, has twisted them, and, over the years, the lonely spinsters, unable to find fulfillment in one another’s company or in the many activities they have tried to pass the time over the years during their self-imposed “solitary confinement,” have come to see their young neighbor’s own unrequited love as a long-lasting torment which may give some purpose to their lives if they can deliver Alice from the hell that they have had to endure since 1910.

Instead, they would have caused Alice untold grief by such an action, since, as the young man confides, he already does love Alice. Their romance, which could lead to marriage, almost ended before it began, in the death of the man of Alice’s dreams, and, blinded by their own torment and grief, neither of the sisters were capable of imagining that their reading of Alice’s unhappiness and its cause was a result not of special insight, as they might have supposed, but of a projection of their own experience onto the life of another person. Their solipsistic self-exile from life and the irrationality that preceded and follows from such “solitary confinement” is the horror that makes them monstrous and villainous, despite their appearances as harmless old ladies to the contrary.

Bradbury’s masterful writing allows the horror and the delight that rear, shockingly, at the end of this compact, deceptively simple story of heartache, madness, and seclusion. By emulating Bradbury’s technique, other writers can accomplish similar results.

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