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Three Hundred Bright College Students Disagree with My Interpretation of John O’Hara’s Story “Straight Pool”: Does That ...

Three Hundred Bright College Students Disagree with My Interpretation
of John O’Hara’s Story “Straight Pool”:
Does That Mean I’m Wrong?

Matthew Davis

What does it mean when three hundred bright college students disagree with your interpretation of a story? Or rather, what does it mean when you teach a story to three hundred students over the course of sixteen semesters and those students come up with all sorts of interesting ideas about the story, but not a single one of them comes up with the set of ideas that seems most plausible to you? Those are questions I’ve been asking myself recently -- because these things have happened to me. In English classes at the University of Virginia, I often teach a short story by John O’Hara called “Straight Pool,” and, over the years, my students have floated a wide range of interesting ideas about this story, but none of them have interpreted the story in quite the way I interpret it.

“Straight Pool” is a four-page story that I usually teach as an example of a dramatic monologue. It was originally published in The New Yorker in December of 1933 and has been reprinted in a few anthologies over the years, including Points of View, edited by James Moffett and Kenneth McElheny.

In the story we overhear a man speaking to a buddy while the two of them are shooting pool in a pool hall. The narrator sometimes discusses the action on the billiards table, but mostly he talks about his wife, Mae, who has been having crying spells and acting erratically recently. He is completely puzzled by his wife’s crying spells. He doesn’t understand why they occur. He doesn’t understand why they begin or why they end. Sometimes Mae cries. Sometimes she stops crying and just stares at him -- and he can’t understand why. Recently Mae has stopped cooking breakfast and doing the dishes, and she’s taken to getting drunk at night. The narrator says that he took Mae to a doctor, but the doctor found nothing physically wrong with her. He tries to stay with her and comfort her, but he can only stand so much of the crying and odd behavior, and eventually, when he can’t stand it anymore, he evacuates to the pool hall, where he delivers his monologue.
There’s one more thing about the husband’s monologue that seems like it might be important to mention: the husband tells his buddy – whose name is Jack McMorrow -- that Mae spends a lot of time talking about . . . Jack McMorrow. It seems Mae has been telling her husband not to go to the pool hall. She says she doesn’t want him to go there and talk to Jack McMorrow about her. The husband says he won’t. She says she doesn’t believe him. She thinks he will go to the pool hall and talk to McMorrow. And in fact he does end up going to the pool hall and talking to McMorrow, so it seems she was right to worry about that.
McMorrow and the narrator continue to play pool for awhile while the narrator goes on venting about his wife and her crying spells and the staring and the boozing. At the end of the story, the narrator tells McMorrow that he and Mae have just had a big fight:
Yesterday she didn't get up for breakfast, and last night when I came home from work she wouldn't say a word. And then tonight when I came home, the same story over again. Cockeyed [drunk] again. "What's the idea?" I said, and we had it out hot and heavy, but she didn't want me to leave, so I said I'd leave all right, and she was lucky if I came back. I got the hell out of the house as sore as a boil. I guess I oughtn't to be talking about her like this, especially to you, because you're the one she thinks is always talking about her, but I have to talk to somebody. I think I'll go to Brooklyn and get drunk. How about it?
. . . What's the matter? You quitting? ... Oh! If I'd of known you had a date, we could of made it twenty-five points. You're ahead anyhow, and I don't feel like shooting much. Guess I'll go to Brooklyn. My brother just got a gallon of apple ....
And that his how the story ends – mid sentence.
When I teach “Straight Pool,” I always begin by asking my students what they think might be wrong with Mae. Responses vary, but I usually don’t have to call on more than four students before someone says, “I think Mae is having an affair with Jack McMorrow.” Usually several other students immediately chime in to agree with this idea. However, there is always a second group of students who are skeptical or unconvinced by this theory. This is almost always the first major interpretative disagreement about the story that surfaces, and I like to diagram the disagreement on the chalkboard as a fork in a road, where each fork indicates a possible “path of interpretation.” Since forking paths are hard to draw in an essay, I will present questions in boxes, with answers below.
Q1: Is Mae cheating with Jack?
Yes/probably (60-805%)
No/not sure (20-40%)

I would estimate that about 60 to 80% of my students say they think that Mae is probably cheating on her husband with Jack McMorrow. The others – 20 to 40% – say they are not convinced that she is. I give these percentages as ranges because the numbers vary from one semester to the next but also because students sometimes change their minds during class discussion. Every year there are some students who initially take the “no/not sure” position but eventually switch to the “yes/probably” position. Sometimes there are students who switch in the opposite direction, too.
When I ask the suspicious students what makes them think Mae is cheating on the narrator, their responses are usually based more on “gut” feeling than on textual evidence. One student told me, “I just have a feeling.” Another told me that his “spidey sense” told him there was cheating going on. I tell them that their responses interest me and I take them seriously. After all, they are young people who spend a lot of time negotiating the complicated world of dating, in which cheating does occur, so they are likely to have better cheating-detection equipment than an old, married guy like me. On the other hand, I also tell them that they won’t get far as essay-writers if all they have to share with their readers is what their “spidey sense” is telling them. That’s not the sort of evidence we English teachers are looking for!
Some suspicious readers point to Jack McMorrow’s saying he has “a date” at the end of the story as a detail that makes them suspicious. They think that date might be an assignation with Mae. Others say, “it could be anyone!”
Some say that the fact that Mae talks about Jack McMorrow quite a bit is evidence that she is having an affair with him, but other students say it’s not: “If she’s really cheating with Jack McMorrow, why does she talk about him so much? Wouldn’t she want to conceal his name? Isn’t that Cheating 101?” Some of the suspicious readers suggest that Mae must know it is unwise to talk about Jack but she simply can’t help herself. I call this the “girl can’t help it” school of interpretation.
Eventually, we transition to a discussion of why Mae might be crying. This is where I usually begin to encounter a wider variety of interpretations, which I will attempt to summarize below.
Q1: Is Mae cheating with Jack?
Q2: Why does Mae cry?

Yes/probably (60-80%)
A. She cries because she is genuinely upset about the situation (80-90%)

B. She cries strategically to achieve a goal (10-20%)

No/not sure (20-40%)
C. She cries for medical reasons (2%)

D. She cries for some psychological reason unrelated to cheating, e.g. marital unhappiness (94%)

E. She cries because Jack McMorrow sexually assaulted her (4%)

I have printed question 2 next to question 1 in the table above because it is clear that these two questions are connected in certain ways. Students who think Mae is cheating with Jack McMorrow tend to account for her crying in different ways than students who doubt that she is cheating.
Among students who suspect that Mae is cheating, 80-90% conclude that she is cheating but is genuinely upset about what she has done. This interpretative path – which can be summarized, Yes, A – turns out to be the most popular interpretation in virtually every class I teach. Often it is the majority position. Although it is popular with all students, it seems to be especially popular with female students. Many of the young ladies I teach seem to feel that men cheat and don’t even feel bad about it whereas women cheat but at least have the decency to feel guilty about it.
Among students who suspect that Mae is cheating, there are almost always a few who are skeptical about the view I have just outlined and take a darker, less charitable view of Mae. These readers suspect Mae not only of cheating but also of crying strategically. They think she is crying to achieve a particular objective. When asked what that objective might be, many say that they think Mae is trying to cry the narrator out of the house so she can get rid of him and have a chance to rendez-vous with Jack. These readers make up the hard core of the suspicious group; I call them super-suspicious readers. Over the years, I would say that perhaps two-thirds of the super-suspicious readers have been males.
“Why does Mae cry?” turns out to be a difficult question for readers who don’t think Mae is cheating, and many readers in this camp cheerfully admit they don’t know why she is crying. Some suggest psychological reasons. Maybe she’s depressed. Or maybe she’s preoccupied with something unrelated to Jack McMorrow. Maybe she’s unhappy in her marriage but not actually cheating. A few think there must be some physical problem, even though the doctor couldn’t find one.
In recent years, some students have begun to suggest that perhaps Mae did have intimate contact with Jack McMorrow, but perhaps it was not voluntary sex. Perhaps she was sexually assaulted by Jack McMorrow at some point in the past. Proponents of this view say that it provides an answer to the question of why Mae talks so much about McMorrow. She wouldn’t do that, they say, if she were having a voluntary affair with him. In that case, she would try to conceal his name. Frequently mentioning his name but urging her husband not to talk with him would make more sense if Mae is ashamed and does not want her husband to find out about the assault – or if she just doesn’t want him to have anything to do with a man who assaulted her. This theory is put forward mostly by young women and has become more popular in recent years. However, it remains very much a minority opinion.
There is another school of interpretation that I need to mention, and that is what I call the “genius husband” interpretation. This can be illustrated by placing another question in a box and then appending the different answers students give.
Q1: Is Mae cheating with Jack?
Q3: Does the husband know Mae is cheating?
Yes/probably (60-80%)
Yes. (2%)

No. (98%)
No/not sure (20-40%)
(Not applicable)

Among those who think Mae is cheating, the overwhelming majority of readers – I would estimate 98% -- believe that the narrator does not know what is going on. They think that this is part of what the story is about: it is ironic that the narrator who tells the story doesn’t understand the real cause of the behavior he is describing, whereas savvy, clued-in, suspicious readers of the story do. According to this line of thinking, the husband-narrator is “a dupe,” “a dope,” a “shmo.” He is “clueless,” “completely in the dark.” But he is also a victim. “Poor guy,” one of my students said, “Here he is trying to be extra nice to Mae and staying home with her and spending ‘quality time’ with her, and she is out fooling around on him. I feel sorry for him!” Such sympathetic sentiments are voiced much more often by men than by women.
Most readers – male and female alike -- think that the narrator does not understand what is actually going on. However, not everyone agrees. A few readers think that Mae is cheating and the narrator actually has figured out what she and Jack are up to and is in the process of confirming his theory. These readers believe the narrator is deliberately pretending to be clueless and then promising to go to Brooklyn, to see if he can lure Jack McMorrow to his house and catch him in bed with Mae. “It’s all a trap, you see!” This theory has relatively few advocates. They are mostly men, and, for whatever reason, they tend to be men who are very proud of themselves for having come up with this theory. They tend to think that this theory clears up all of the difficulties in the story. According to their interpretation, the narrator is not a clueless dupe; he’s a genius who’s fishing for a cheater – and is about to catch one.
There’s one last question I need to set out here. It’s another question on which I find that most students agree, and yet there are still two schools of thought.
Q4: Does Mae want her husband to speak with Jack McMorrow?
Yes. (< 1%)
No. (> 99%)

Interestingly, I find myself in the tiny sliver of readers who say “yes.” Actually, it’s worse than that: I am the sliver. That is, I am the only person who says yes, Mae wants her husband to speak with Jack McMorrow. Of the 300 people in my classes who have discussed this story over the years, I seem to be the only one who thinks that Mae actually wants her husband to speak with Jack McMorrow. I grant that this is a surprising opinion to hold -- because Mae spends a fair amount of time telling her husband, “Don’t you go to that pool hall and talk to Jack McMorrow!” I can account for my peculiar views on this point, but I prefer to do so by circling back and revisiting the four questions set out above.
The first question, as you may recall, was “Is Mae cheating with Jack?” On this question, I agree with the majority of my students. I think Mae is cheating on her husband with Jack McMorrow. I thought this might be the case the very first time I read the story, but I did not initially have much of an evidentiary basis for my view. I have developed one over time, though.
Oddly enough, I convinced myself that there is probably hanky-panky going on when I sat down and reconstructed the pool game that is unfolding in the background while the narrator talks about Mae. The narrator and Jack McMorrow agree to play straight pool -- a variety of billiards for two players, in which there are fourteen balls to be sunk in each frame, and each ball is worth a point – and they agree to play until one player reaches 50 points. But the narrator has not been playing much pool recently -- he’s been spending a lot of time at home with Mae – so Jack agrees to spot him ten points.
That is the initial agreement, or contract, and what is important to notice is that Jack McMorrow initially agrees to a nice long evening of straight pool. Of course, it’s impossible to say how long the game will last. That will depend on how well the two men play, and how evenly matched they are. If the players are poor shooters or having an off night, it could take a long time for either player to get to 50 points. But even if both players are playing well, it could take quite a while. Suppose the two of them are very evenly matched; in that case they could conceivably play until the score is 49-49 and until the deciding ball falls, tipping the match to 50-49. That would mean 89 balls sunk in all. (It’s 89, rather than 99, because we have to subtract the ten points that Jack spotted the narrator.) In order to reach that point, the two men would have to complete six whole racks of straight pool and then set out a seventh. (89 balls divided by 14 balls per frame of straight pool = 6.36 racks.) Of course, if the competition is more lopsided, they might end up playing less pool. If Jack McMorrow were to make every shot and run the table, he could reach fifty points in four frames (14 + 14 + 14 + 8); and if the narrator were to make all of his shots and run the table, he could get to 50 points in three frames (10 point spot + 14 balls + 14 balls + 12 balls). But these extremely lopsided scenarios are extremely unlikely. It is more likely that the two men will need to play at least five racks of fourteen balls – and possibly six or seven.
What does all of this have to do with the question of whether Jack and Mae are cheating? I’ll get to that soon; I promise!
I’ve said a little about how much pool the two men might have played if they had played on to the agreed-upon stopping point. But, of course, they don’t do that. I therefore need to change direction and look at how much pool the two of them actually play before they quit for the night. This can be puzzled out from details in the story.
It is clear that Jack and the narrator play one complete frame of straight pool, which Jack wins, ten balls to four: “That makes it ten to four this frame,” the narrator says (p. 33). To calculate the running score, however, we need to factor in the ten balls Jack spotted the narrator; so, the running score at the end of the first frame must be Jack: 10, Narrator: 14. The two men then call for the rack boy or rack girl, whose name is “Snowball,” to re-rack the balls in preparation for their second rack of straight pool: “Hey, Snowball, rack ‘em up” (p. 33).
The second rack of balls is set out on the table and the players begin to sink balls, but they do not finish off the rack. The narrator begins this rack by going on his “high run,” sinking three balls in a row (p. 33); so he must have at least 17 points in total. But then Jack sinks several balls and we are told that he is ahead when they decide to quit (p. 35). If Jack is ahead, he must have at least 18 points, to the narrator’s 17. The score could be 18-17, 19-17, or 20-17. It is probably not 21-17 or 22-17, though, because the narrator never calls for Snowball to re-rack the balls, as he would presumably do if all 14 balls in the second frame had been sunk.
What happens at this point is that the narrator mentions that he might go to Brooklyn later and get drunk, and then Jack announces that he’s quitting.
I think I'll go to Brooklyn and get drunk. How about it?
. . . What's the matter? You quitting? ... Oh! If I'd of known you had a date, we could of made it twenty-five points. You're ahead anyhow . . .
It’s suspicious that Jack mentions a date, as my students point out, but what makes it more suspicious is the timing. Jack does not reveal that he has a date at the beginning of the night; he does not mention this until after the narrator says he is thinking he will go to Brooklyn for a few hours. That raises the possibility that Jack doesn’t actually decide that he has a date until the husband mentions his plan to go to Brooklyn. And what makes the whole situation even more suspicious is that this “date” seems to represent a revision of Jack’s original plan for the evening. Earlier in the evening, Jack indicated that he was willing to play four, five, six, or even seven frames of straight pool with the narrator. He evidently made no mention of a date at that point. By agreeing to play so much pool, he seemed to be implicitly indicating that he did not have anything else he wanted or needed to do. However, once the narrator declares his intention to go to Brooklyn for several hours, Jack suddenly decides to quit playing pool -- before he and the narrator have even finished the second frame! It’s this sudden revision of plans, more than anything, that makes me think Jack is up to something. At the beginning of the story, he seems to tacitly declare that he has nothing in particular to do all night; he is perfectly willing to play pool till the wee hours. However, as soon as he learns that the narrator will be away from home for a few hours, he thinks of something he would rather do than shoot pool all night. To make a long story short, a close look at the initial “contract” for the pool game and the hasty termination of the game have led me to conclude the suspicious readers are probably right. Mae and Jack are probably having an affair.
The second interpretative question introduced above was “Why does Mae cry?” On this question I side with super-suspicious readers who think that Mae is crying strategically. This is a problematic claim, I grant you, because usually when people cry they do so because they are genuinely upset. There’s not a lot of pretend-crying in the world, and it’s a difficult thing to do persuasively. Therefore, our initial presumption should be that a person is crying because he or she is genuinely upset. That assumption is going to be correct most of the time. In Mae’s case, however, there are some details that make me think we need to reconsider this initial presumption. In his monologue, the husband describes a curious pattern of crying and stopping and staring:
You know I'm not a hard guy to get along with. At least I don't think I am, but Mae gets these crying spells, and honest to God, I can't stay in the house another minute. And then if I say I'm going out, even if it's only for a pack of cigarettes, why, she suddenly all of a sudden stops crying and sits there looking at me, not saying a word, and it's worse than her crying. I don't know what makes her do that. (32)
What’s odd here is that Mae seems to be able to stop crying on a dime. Most genuinely hysterical people can’t do that. That should make us suspicious; it should make us wonder if she is turning the waterworks on and off, like a fountain, in order to attain some objective.
It is important to note that the narrator is not describing something that happened once and once only. He is using the habitual present tense to describe an ongoing pattern of behavior: “Mae gets these crying spells . . . . and then if I say I'm going out . . . she . . . stops crying and sits there looking at me.” It’s also important to note that all of these instances the narrator is summarizing seem to end with Mae staring at the narrator. It’s risky to interpret what that staring might mean; it could mean a lot of things. However, what I think it means in this case is, roughly, “You said you were going to leave: why are you still here?” Staring often has the effect of making people feel uncomfortable, and it looks to me like Mae is trying to make her husband feel uncomfortable about sticking around. In short, I agree with the suspicious readers who believe that Mae is trying to cry her husband out of the house. It looks like she may have begun with a simple cry-him-out strategy and then moved on to a more complicated cry-and-stare strategy. She cries until he declares his intention to leave; then she switches from crying to staring.
Unfortunately for Mae, these tactics do not have the intended effect. Her husband responds to her crying and staring by spending more time with her and not wanting to leave her alone: “honest, I'm afraid to leave her alone. When she gets in one of these spells, she's liable to do anything, so I very seldom leave” (p. 32). This is ironic for us, as readers, but it must be very annoying for Mae. As time goes by, she seems to try out other strategies for driving her husband out of the house. She stops fixing breakfast, stops doing the dishes (p. 33), and starts getting “cockeyed drunk with a bottle of gin” (p. 34). All of these actions can be viewed as genuine, spontaneous symptoms of distress, but all of them can also be viewed as motivated actions: if I can’t cry him out, maybe I can piss him off by neglecting my household duties or getting blotto. I am inclined to interpret them as motivated actions. In my interpretation, Mae has been cheating with Jack McMorrow and is eager to do so again. However, in order to do that, she has to get her husband to leave her alone. That is prerequisite for cheating, after all: you can’t do it until your spouse leaves your side. She tries to cry her husband out of the house, and when that fails she omits her household duties and starts getting drunk. This last strategy is ultimately successful. The narrator gets to the point where he can’t stand being home anymore and heads out for the pool hall. In short, there seems to a method in Mae’s madness.
The third interpretative question was “Does the husband know that Mae is cheating?” I believe he does not. I agree with the students who argue that the story is meant to be ironic. It’s ironic because the narrator doesn’t understand the true significance of the tale he is telling, and it’s ironic because he responds to the situation (her infidelity and the resulting behaviors) be trying to be more and more attentive to her, which is exactly the opposite of what she wants. As a married man, I find this to be a rather painful sort of irony, but it is irony nonetheless.
Now this brings us back to question 4: Does Mae want her husband to speak with Jack McMorrow? This is where I disagree with . . . everybody. I think Mae probably does want her husband to go to the pool hall and talk with Jack, even though she says pretty much the exact opposite. I reason thusly: Mae is apparently cheating on her husband with Jack, and she seems to be adopting various manipulative strategies to try to get her husband out of the house. Now, with those two ideas in mind, let’s look what happens in the story (or what I think happens). After Mae gets soused for the second night in a row, the husband bails out and goes the pool hall. He meets up with Jack and they agree to play straight pool -- first man to fifty wins. While they are shooting pool, the husband tells Jack all about his miseries at home and Mae’s odd behavior. Jack learns that Mae is at home and thinking about him. The husband then mentions that he might go to Brooklyn and get drunk later. Would Jack like to join him? No, Jack would not. Jack has a different activity in mind for his evening. He declares that he has a date -- and (I hypothesize) he goes off to meet Mae shortly after the action of the story ends.
Now what could be better from Mae’s point of view? Things turn out perfectly for her – and perhaps she wanted them to turn out that way all along. Perhaps she hoped that her husband would become annoyed and go to the pool hall and talk with Jack. That would at least get him out of the house; and if he happened to talk about her with his buddy (as men often do), that would let Jack know how Mae feels; and if he happened to talk about his plans for the evening, that would let Jack know that he has a window of opportunity. Good, better, best!
Now, if this line of interpretation is correct, it means that Mae is not just a cheater. She is a sort of superstar of cheating. Indeed, she has pulled off an astonishing coup: she has managed to send a message to her lover using her husband. She has sent Jack McMorrow a husband-gram, and Jack McMorrow has received the message. As for the husband, he has delivered the message, but he doesn’t even realize he has done so! Surely that is one of the great achievements in the history of infidelity! I would rank it right up there with the achievements of “handy” Nicholas in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. One does not wish to encourage such behavior, but one has to admire the intelligence employed, even if for ignoble ends. I should also note that this interpretation makes an ironic story even more ironic because the difference between what the narrator understands and what we think is really happening grows even larger.
As we have seen, the interpretation I have been sketching can be encapsulated as a set of answers to the four questions set out above: Yes, B, No, Yes. This set of answers puts me in partial agreement with many of my students but it puts me in total agreement with none of them. Sixty to eighty percent of my students agree with me that, yes, Mae is probably cheating on her husband. I am suspicious along with those students. In addition, Perhaps 6% of my students agree with me that Mae is not only cheating and but also crying strategically to get her husband out of the house (2.B). I am super-suspicious of Mae, along with those readers. But nobody (so far!) agrees with my idea that Mae actually wants her husband to go to the pool hall and speak with Jack McMorrow (4.D). I have this super-duper-suspicious interpretation all to myself.
When three hundred bright people disagree with you and zero agree, it’s usually time to rethink your position. Perhaps I should, but I’m not convinced that my interpretation is wrong. In fact, my way of reading the story seems to me to fit in pretty well with what I know about John O’Hara’s modus operandi as a writer: Although I am not an expert on his work, I have read enough of it to know that marital infidelity is a subject he returned to again and again – and also that he likes situational irony.1 I also feel that my interpretation accounts for the details in the story better than any of the alternative views. At this point I would revisit some of those alternative views and indicate briefly why I find them less persuasive.
The majority view (Yes, A, No, No). Adherents of this view think that Mae is cheating and her husband doesn’t know, but she herself feels awful about it, and that’s why she cries. I call this “the cheater with a heart of gold” theory, just to agitate the students who adopt it. Unfortunately, given the patterns of crying, stopping on a dime, and staring that we have observed, I think it is much more likely that Mae is a cheater with a mind of gold. (About her heart, perhaps the less said the better.) As far as Mae is concerned, I am reminded of the old legal principle: falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus. It looks like Mae is false in one way (In her motivated crying); so we have good reason for suspecting she may be false in other ways as well.
The “no cheating view” -- No, C/D, not applicable, not applicable. Adherents believe that Mae is not cheating on her husband and must therefore be crying for some other reason, either psychological or physical. I have had some delightful, pure-hearted students who adopt this position. These students seem not to want to think badly of Mae -- or anyone else. That is a generous and humane response, but it ignores the evidence about Jack and Mae rehearsed above and leaves these students with no very good explanation of what the story is about. Why might O’Hara have thought this story was worth telling? What might he be trying to do? What might be the point of the story? Students who follow this interpretive path have difficulty answering these basic questions. For them the story is just a slice of life – and a mysterious one.
The sexual assault hypothesis -- No, E, No, No. Adherents maintain that Mae has had intimate contact with Jack McMorrow but against her will. I think this is a very clever theory, and some of my students have shown me in papers that it really does account for a lot of details in the story. However, there are some things it does not account for very well, and the most important of these is the husband’s trip to Waterbury. This is an episode in the story that I have not had occasion to mention previously. At one point during Mae’s days of crying and staring, the narrator has to go to Waterbury, CT, for a family funeral. He invites Mae to accompany him but she declines. Surely her decision to stay at home is more consistent with her wanting to be left alone (possibly for cheating) than with her wanting to stay with her husband at all times in order to be protected from Jack McMorrow. Why would Mae stay at home by herself, in the territory of predatory Jack McMorrow, if she could go to Waterbury and be safe with her husband? What I suspect is happening with this school of interpretation is that current issues, including the exposure of predatory males like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein and the proliferation of #me too stories in the press, have encouraged readers (and particularly female readers) to find something in the story that probably was no part of O’Hara’s intention back in the 1930s. As readers, we do this all the time: we find contemporary significance in older stories, and it’s a good thing we do. But the significance of a story for a particular reader is not the same thing as authorial meaning, and that’s something I am interested in this case: authorial meaning.
The “genius husband” interpretation -- Yes, B, Yes, (unclear) Adherents believe that the husband/narrator is not a dupe (as many readers think) but a savvy detective, who, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion, has solved the case and is now springing a trap to catch Jack McMorrow and his wife in the act. Again, it’s a very clever theory, and I’ve had students write excellent works of “companion fiction” describing what they think goes down back at the narrator’s house later in the night. (Things get broken!) I’m not sure I have an argument that refutes this interpretation absolutely, but I nevertheless feel that my theory is more plausible overall. One thing that troubles me about this theory is that it leaves us with a completely irony-free story. According to this line of thought, the whole monologue is a set speech – a fiction within the fiction -- that has been worked up by the husband for the express purpose of trapping Jack McMorrow. The husband dangles the speech in front of McMorrow like a fisherman dropping a lure in the water. And Jack seems to take the bait. Mission accomplished! High five! There is absolutely no irony in this reading, but that’s a problem for me – because I feel like there’s a lot of irony in the story.
Now you may be wondering what students have had to say about my own theory over the years. The truth is, they haven’t said very much – because they haven’t really had the time it would require. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time listening to student theories and reviewing evidence relating to questions 1 and 2, and sometimes also question 3, but I’ve only occasionally had enough class time to fight my way through to question 4; and, on those few occasions when I have been able to address that question, I have found that my theory is met with uniform incredulity. The students are unpersuaded and mostly sit in puzzled silence. Perhaps it’s too much to take in all at once, especially at the end of class; or perhaps the students just don’t want to offend their professor; or perhaps my theory really is bonkers. At any rate, the students tilt their heads in puzzlement and seem glad when the period ends, allowing them to scamper off to Microeconomics class. Their reaction doesn’t really surprise me. After all, Mae says several times that she does not want her husband to go to the pool hall and talk with Jack McMorrow, and usually people say what they mean. It takes a pretty complicated theory to explain why Mae might not be saying what she really means, and I have never had enough time to set out my theory in great detail. (At least not until now!)
It could be that my theory is just not plausible, and that’s why none of my students go for it. But I think there may be another reason why students don’t ever seem to come up with this theory on their own and tend to be very skeptical when I present it in the last few minutes of class. I believe I am having trouble selling my theory partly because I am teaching the cellphone generation.
My students have grown up with cell phones. They have grown up with direct messaging, Snapchat, Instagram, and probably a half dozen other platforms for instantaneous communication that I am not even aware of. If a young lady wants to send a message to a man she’s interested in, she needs only two thumbs, his “digits,” and five seconds of typing time. What could be easier? The sexual revolution allows such directness, and cell phones make it practicable, almost effortless. From my discussions with students, I know that texting is in fact the usual method for arranging hook-ups and communicating with a “side guy” or “side chick.” It is an ideal medium for regular communication without detection. In short, the cell phone is the cheater’s best friend. But here’s the thing: Mae didn’t have a cell phone.
In fact, in the 1920s and 30s only a small portion of Americans even had private land lines. I remember talking to my mother, who grew up in the 1940s. Her family was fairly well off, and they had a telephone in the house, but the line was a “shared line.” This meant that when they picked up the phone, they sometimes heard a dial tone but they sometimes heard other people talking on the shared line. At that point they were supposed to hang up; however, being human beings, they sometimes stayed on the line to try to figure out what the neighbors might be taking about.
They had different ideas about appropriate female conduct in those days, too. It was unusual for a married women to go out at night without her husband. Some husbands would not have allowed this; many wives would not have been comfortable doing it. They knew if they did such a thing, eyebrows would be raised. This old way of thinking about gender roles is not quite dead, even today. Some older couples I know still operate on the old expectations; they are not comfortable going anywhere in the evening without their spouse.
The story was written the early 1930s, and I think it is likely that Mae is dealing with some of these old-fashioned societal expectations and also with some old-fashioned communication problems. Her husband doesn’t want to leave her in her distress (or seeming distress) – because that’s not what good husbands do. She can’t just run down to the pool hall to see Jack – because that’s not what good wives do. She certainly can’t text Jack McMorrow, and she may not be able to telephone him either. If she doesn’t have a phone, or Jack doesn’t have a phone, or if her husband is with her all through the evening, how on earth will she be able to communicate with the fellow she fancies? Mae could have a serious communication problem – but it’s not a problem that the Instagram youth of 2021 are equipped to understand. Communication is so easy for them that they struggle to understand how difficult it could be in earlier eras.
To understand “Straight Pool,” we may need to think ourselves back into the 1930’s. How can Mae, languishing in the cellphone-less 1930s, establish contact with Jack? How can she get a message to him? Well, I think the story shows us. In fact, it shows not just how she might do it, but how she actually does it. Clever lass: she sends her boyfriend a husband-gram. At least that’s my theory. But none of my students agree with me, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. What do you think, reader?

Works Cited

O’Hara. John. “Straight Pool.” Points of View, ed. James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElhaney. Revised edition. New York: Mentor, 1995.
Stambovsky, Phillip. “John O’Hara.” The Columbia Companion to the 20th Century American Short Story. Ed. Blanche Gelfant. 420-422.


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So I know I’ve already left a review but I just wanted to share that after making the adjustments you guys suggested I submitted another round of queries and got an offer for publication! I’m so excited to start this journey as a published author and have the staff here at WritersClearinghouse to thank for it.