Peter Taylor's The Old Forest
Critics have continuously characterized Peter Taylor’s work, as a social critique of the South and how it shows “the effects of cultural inheritance on its people” (Bryant 66). In his story, “The Old Forest,” Taylor examines the regional history and social structures that shaped his own past and how breaking the architecture that has existed for generations is not easily accomplished. Although it takes place in 1937, with progressive girls and college students filling the city of Memphis with intellectualism and open sexuality, the social constructions of the past, most specifically the descendents of plantation owners and rich socialites, are not easily forgotten. Lines have been drawn between those residing in the progressive city and Nat Ramsey’s community of debutantes and patriarchal dominance. Nat’s fiancé, Caroline Braxley is unwillingly thrown into the conflict as Nat finds himself in a questionable situation with a city girl, Lee Ann. As Caroline struggles to secure her marriage to Nat, she is faced with obstacles of gender, social class, and her own emotions. Taylor exposes the essential truth behind Caroline of how she uses her knowledge of her expected roles to survive in a changing societal context. Caroline embodies a middle path through the conflicting generations and social movements that allows her to follow her desires and gain the future she wants without excluding herself from the values she has learned to accept.
Caroline Braxley does not have a significant role in the beginning of Nat’s narrative. Instead, she is background noise in his quest for individual knowledge and self-awareness in the changing Memphis community. Nat only refers to her as “the society girl I was going to marry” (254) and puts her into an early category of the “innocent, untutored types that we generally took to dances at the Memphis Country Club and whom we eventually looked forward to marrying” (250). Nat does not give these debutantes the attention that he so admiringly puts toward the city girls. Thus, Caroline is simply a beautiful girl who he found “remarkable…capable and handsome” (254). Among his passive descriptions of the woman he was to spend the rest of his life with, readers are shown a more progressive side to Caroline that Nat has not realized yet. He praises her for liking “any sort of individualism in men” (255) but fails to realize that this quality is similar to the city girls he finds so attractive. Caroline’s role in Nat’s life so far seems no more than an organized and boring relationship that he escapes from with his adventures with the Memphis demimondes.
Caroline, as expected, holds many qualities of the life expected of her by her parents and friends. When Nat is hurt, Caroline makes a “proper sick call” to his house and Nat presumes nothing more than for her to assure his presence for supper. Although there are hints of romance between them, Nat reveals to readers only a...