The Short Stories of Lydia Davis
Power, Dominance, and Human Nature in “On The Train” and “A Story of Stolen Salamis”
In Lydia Davis’s short story “On The Train,” the narrator is depicted as a judgemental individual capable of doing no wrong, who is surrounded by mannerless people while riding the train. In “A Story of Stolen Salamis,” an Italian landlord’s prized salamis are stolen from his shed, and the media finds it appropriate to create a comic story around the event. These short stories encapsulate the raw reality of human nature, which depends on our desire for power. Lydia Davis’s “On The Train” and “A Story of Stolen Salamis” seem to share an negative view of humanity, where unfavorable human traits are derived from humankind’s quest for power and dominance. Both the narrator of “On The Train” and the media in “A Story of Stolen Salamis” have a way of manipulating information without considering the repercussions. Ultimately, mankind seeks power, and they are capable of achieving this power through manipulation.
In “On The Train,” the narrator takes advantage of her unrestrained voice to speak her mind regarding the manners of those around her. She exaggerates the seriousness of their behaviours while neglecting to acknowledge her own, brushing what she does aside as a “bad habit” (Train, 6). For example, the women are “talking so steadily and audibly across the aisle to each other” (Train, 2-3), and Davis’ choice of diction makes it seem as though they are being rude and ill-mannered. Only a while later, the women are depicted “sitting together side by side and quietly reading” (Train, 9-10). This may serve as an instance where the narrator exaggerates the true facts to shame others with the goal of making herself look better. While staring at the man in the midst of picking his nose, the narrator announces that she “would not report this if [she] were the one picking [her] nose” (Train, 7), so this is an inclination that she may be withholding the truth in order to present the best version of herself.
In “A Story of Stolen Salamis,” the media is highly cunning in the stories they decide to publish. The most concrete example of this is how they alter the story’s true facts. Rather than salamis, the “reporter called the stolen goods ‘sausages’” (Salamis, 10-11) to depict the theft as an “amusing and colourful urban incident” (Salamis, 9-10). The media does this to attract a greater audience so that they can be the better magazine outlet. The desire for power and prestige is observed in both “On The Train” and “Salamis” through the manipulation of information, ultimately demonstrating how these stories share a negative view of humankind. Along with the characters’ manipulative natures, humanity is also depicted as self-centered.
The characters in “On The Train” and “Salamis” live in their own bubbles, where they seem to believe that they can do no wrong. In “On The Train,” the narrator believes that she is an ideal human being with only a few “bad habits” (Train, 6), while those around her are not nearly as perfect as she is with their “bad manners” (Train, 3). Although she is in the midst of “dripping tomato from [her] sandwich on to [her] newspaper” (Train, 5-6), she sees no issue with what she is doing. Obsessed with what the people around her are doing, she is quick to judge their behaviours as being much worse than hers. She goes on to describe how the women are “blameless” (Train, 11), and her self-centeredness is portrayed through her sense of authority. Use of the word blameless makes it seem as though they don’t know any better, and that she pities their lack of refinement. In “Salamis,” the media is similarly self-centered, considering how they turn the landlord’s business and livelihood into a comic story for their own benefit. These salamis obviously meant quite a great deal to the landlord, considering how he is so bothered by their misnaming in the magazine. The media does not take the landlord’s feelings into account, profiting from the “amusing and colourful urban incident” (Salamis, 9-10) to attract an audience. The media alters the story to serve their audience, disregarding the man’s livelihood. This shows how they are too self-consumed to acknowledge how their efforts impact other people, similar to how the narrator in “On The Train” cannot see past how perfect she is. The two stories depict a class of humans that searches for prestige over those around them.
Besides manipulativeness and self-centeredness, the characters in Davis’ short stories also prove to be petty creatures capable of bad things. “On The Train” and “Salamis” both have characters who do unacceptable things, and these behaviours also serve as justification for on Davis’ unfavorable view of humanity. In “On The Train,” the narrator is judgemental of those around her, which is an undesirable trait. She judges the women for “talking so steadily and audibly across the aisle to each other” (Train, 2-3), and critiques the man for “picking his nose” (Train, 5). She seems disgusted with their behaviour, mentioning how they have “bad manners” (Train, 3). Although the women “[sit] together …quietly” (Trains, 9-10) by the end of the story, she dismisses their behaviour as “blameless” (Trains, 11), and she still seems to judge them as the women who yelled across the aisle. The narrator’s judgement may stem from the fact that she searches to be better than the people around her, so she seizes the opportunity she has to find the faults in others. In “Salamis,” a “wave of petty vandalism and theft” (Salamis, 3) struck the Italian landlord, and his “salamis were taken” (Salamis, 4). As the media described it, it was “an amusing … urban incident” (Salamis, 9-10), and the salamis were stolen for no reason. The act of vandalism shows how humans are capable of bad things, and the lack of a motive makes this situation worse. They did this to feel powerful, because the landlord should have been upset when he realized the theft. The person that stole these salamis and vandalized the landlord’s shed did not think about how much value this had to the Italian, showing how humans may be inconsiderate in nature. Both “On The Train” and “Salamis” encompass the negative behaviours that humans can have, demonstrating how humans constantly desire to be better than anyone around them.
The characters in Lydia Davis’ “On The Train” and “A Story of Stolen Salamis” share similar human traits that stem from their desire for prestige and power. Their capacity to be manipulative, self-centered and petty are all examples of how the characters of these two short stories exhibit similar behaviours. Despite the unfavorable view of humanity that Davis presents, what do these stories tell us about power dynamics in society? There is the possibility that figures like the narrator and the thieves will always maintain their power, or instead that there is a shift in power depending on time and circumstance.