Choosing Their Own Destinies:
An Analysis of Conflict of Characters
in Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs”
Fiction writer Richard Ford’s story entitled “Rock Springs” is a showcase of intriguing character presentation amid the seemingly mundane plot involving a man, a woman, a child, a dog, and their escape to a better life. The factor of the stolen vehicle appears at first to be a mere device to make the transport a bit more engaging, and the interaction with several other characters—the cab driver, the woman in the trailer with the autistic child—simply add-ons to give the story some texture. Add to that the destination of Rock Springs, a small town in the middle of nowhere yet abundant in opportunity, and the tale seems to be skewed clearly to focus on turning over a new leaf and leaving the past behind. But further reading into the story reveals many more nuances and clues that may ultimately change its supposed purpose, as particularly seen in the exchange between Earl Middleton and the unnamed black woman in the trailer.
Ford’s casual narrative explores the themes of truth vs. deception, emotion vs. reason, and conscience vs. feigned innocence as illustrated by the exchange between Earl and the woman, including the final revelation of who emerged as the victor.
II. Truth vs. Deception
On the outset, the scene between Earl and the trailer woman seems to be harmless enough, and somehow even offers a feeling of relief, considering the situation of Earl and the stolen car. The woman embodies the stereotypical traits of a caring grandmother, specially with the little boy in tow, and attending to Earl in such a polite manner. However, truth and honesty are not exactly of prime importance throughout the story—the single admission of truth was by Earl’s girlfriend Edna about the monkey she killed—thus it cannot be assumed that the woman was indeed being honest. The reference to ‘Negro’, in the story’s context equated with immorality and excess, gives a vague clue regarding the woman’s nature; her questions regarding Earl’s condition, the cab driver’s mention of new arrivals of black men who acted as pimps for the prostitutes, and the marked absence of her husband may all be tied together. The nearby gold mine and the fact that she lived in a mobile home may be combined to conclude that the woman may be part of this economy, and the child may not even be her grandson.
Earl, on the other hand, is already known by the reader to be dishonest, particularly in his mention of being an ophthalmologist and their supposed objective to settle in Florida. Whether this was accepted for truth by the woman is arguable, but by her action of looking at Earl with “a look that seemed to want the truth” brings the question of honesty into the exchange as surmised by Earl’s own dishonesty. However, this match-up appears to be off-kilter, with the advantage on the woman; her last line, “I just passed you on to whatever’s coming to you,” while innocent enough, resonates with knowledge and experience, and even a slight premonition on what would become of Earl.
II. Emotion vs. Reason
The purpose of having children in the story is largely to evoke a sense of sympathy, and both Earl and the woman are at par in this area. But it is easy to conclude how Earl started with a genuine concern for his own child Cheryl compared to the woman and her almost ‘staged’ care for Terrel Jr. From the start of the story, it is established how Earl had his daughter’s welfare over all things, notwithstanding the petty and serious crimes he had committed; on the other hand, the woman’s admission to not being sorry to see Terrel go could refer to her want to get rid of a child with special needs—a child that may not even be of her own blood. With the population of prostitutes in the area, Terrel could even be the offspring of one of them; and if the woman’s husband was indeed a pimp, then Terrel could be a mere product of the business.
Perhaps it is this revelation as presented to Earl that makes him plan for things beyond the simple one he initially conceptualized; having a child with him would still hamper his own goals to start over. And if the woman who seemed quite nice and polite could actually think of letting her grandchild go for her own happiness, then Earl could do the same thing. In this case, the woman once again gains the upper hand—because her own stated motivations were able to influence Earl.
III. Conscience vs. Feigned Innocence
Since the trailer woman is characterized to be quite warm, motherly, and accommodating, it would be difficult to see through her facade; Earl, on the other hand, has all the makings of a man on the loose—what with the unspecific destination, the nighttime arrival, and the running out of gas. But these parameters may be broken down to reveal the ‘feigned innocence’ of the woman, as seen in her practiced manner, and Earl’s real conscience as he still wanted to protect his child, and to regain the love he had for Edna. This new life promised him a chance to make things right, yet his encounter with the woman gave him other ideas. Later, as Edna told him of her decision to go back and leave the uncertainty of their situation, Earl channeled what might have been his learning from the woman and finally chose to leave Edna, Cheryl, and the dog all on their own. Again, with the trailer woman as the influential factor, Earl lets go of his conscience and sets out to live the life he always wanted.
But in the end, as he was attempting to plan his escape, the idea of someone watching him leads Earl to think of his own truth—one that may or may not be seen by others.
The pairing up of Earl and the trailer woman as antagonists, as enumerated above, seems to be imbalanced, with the positive skew toward the woman. While Earl is easily deciphered and read, the woman hides behind the cloak of motherly wholesomeness and care, which may not even be the right qualities to classify her as an antagonist. But on top of the binary oppositions discussed, the story’s apparent theme is about things not being what they seem or look like—a concept validated by Earl’s own thoughts in the end.
For the most part, the story explores the core of one’s being, the capacity for compassion and truth, as well as the weaknesses that may override the purpose of doing what is right. Compared to Earl’s outward propensity for stealing, escape, and other relatively superficial whims like material possessions and creature comforts, the trailer woman’s easy admission to abandon another human being—a child at that—makes her supposedly wholesome character dubious. Through her, Earl learns the concept of self-preservation at the expense of those close to him; this mirrors a person’s character when given the choice of what they know is right, and what they think would help them get ahead. Truth, as symbolized in this story by Rock Springs, is both essential and inconsequential; what gives it meaning is how one perceives it.
Ford, R. (1999). “Rock Springs”. In Williford, L. and Martone, M. (eds.) The Scribner
Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.