Study Guide

Can't and Won't Summary & Study Guide

Lydia Davis
This Study Guide consists of approximately 56 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Can't and Won't.
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Can't and Won't Summary & Study Guide Description

Can't and Won't Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis.

Can't and Won't Stories by Lydia Davis offers a look, often comedic, sometimes tragic, into life and its many insights. Included in this collection are a series of letters from Gustav Flaubert, writer of Madame Bovary, to his lover, Loise Colet. Included in this collection are also a series of complaint letters to various groups, foundations, organizations, and individuals.

The book, itself, is divided into five sections and begins with the story group beginning with A Story of Stolen Salamis, which features the narrator's son and an incident with his landlord. From this group in Section One the reader sees a grouping of stories that speak to ordinary occurrences that had further reaching implications. This is true of the story, The Dog Hair, where the family's beloved pet has died and no one can bring themselves to throw even the stray hairs that are still in the house, away. Additionally, in this first section, the reader, if they are not familiar with Davis's microfiction, will find stories that are no more than a few sentences long. Very often, however, much like a poem, each word and sentence is structured to deliver a masterful thematic punch, or evoke a feeling in the reader. This is true of the story called Contingency (vs. Necessity). Likewise, in Section One, the reader is given a taste of the symbolism in The Two Davises and the Rug story. This first section seems to concern itself with themes of loss, acceptance, and human connection.

Section Two concerns itself with more cerebral and metaphysical issues, such as dreams. This is especially true of the story called, The Magic of the Train, where the theme of things not being as they appear to be is introduced. The narrator observes two women walking away from her in the train, and the narrator guesses their ages to be somewhere in their mid-twenties. However, when the women walk back through the train car, the narrator realizes that she's been mistaken and the women are actually in their late forties or early fifties. In the story, Eating Fish Alone, this theme is again evident in that the narrator wonders if her actions have appeared strange to the chef whose fish she is eating. The title piece of the collection, Can't and Won't, is also in this section. This introduces the author's sense of humor and dry wit, as she indicates that she was at one time turned down for a writing award based on the fact that she used too many contractions. There are many dream sequences in this section where the narrator has encounters with the moon, strange people and monks.

Section Three concerns itself with the theme of human connections and addressing/finding the meaning in life. In the story, The Last of the Mahicans, the narrator visits her mother who is in a nursing home. The mother feels as if she is the last of a dying kind of person, those who are her age and are from her hometown. In another story, the narrator confronts a Master and claims to also be a Master. The true Master tells her that she is not. In a letter from Flaubert to his lover the reader sees that mankind is still bloodthirsty even centuries beyond the gladiatorial days in ancient Greece. The narrator has a sequence of dreams where she is meeting and speaking to a Monk in red. Later, the narrator has an encounter with the moon that fills her room with such light that she is changed inwardly. The story Negative Emotions is also focused on Monks and religious hypocrisy, which illustrates the themes of human connection, the meaning of life, and time.

Section Four continues with the theme of time as evidence in the story, Odon von Horvath Out Walking. In this story Odon is out walking and comes across a hiker who has died on the trail. Upon examining the rucksack he finds a postcard that has never been says, 'having a great time'. It is evident that in this section that the author will use quiet and often dry humor as a vehicle for deeper themes concerning the passing of time, the waste of time, and the use of time. One of the longer stories in this section is called, The Seals. Though the theme of Loss is also present in this piece, it is evident that the loss of a sister is more about allowing time to slip away and then suddenly to be faced with all of the things that were not done, and of all the good intentions that will never come to fruition.

Section Five deals with the past and relationships. The section begins with the short story called, My Childhood Friend. Both the narrator and the childhood friend don't recognize one another at first, because there's been such a passing of time. But, of course, when they do figure out who the other is, are glad to have run into one another once again. In the story, Not Interested, the narrator talks about a book that she despises reading, and that this dislike for the one book has also made it impossible for her to enjoy other novels, too. Tongue-in-cheek the narrator tells the writers of the books to stop sharing their imaginations with her and leave her alone. In the story, The Song, which is a dream that the author had, the narrator hears someone in a house singing a beautiful song, but then someone yells at him and he has to stop the song. Strongly symbolic, this story, as well as many others in this section, suggest the connection between people, and the loss of that connection as happening on many levels.

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