“The Girl on the Plane” by Mary Gaitskill

Best American Short Stories 1993
“The Girl on the Plane”
Mary Gaitskill


I found this short story in The Best American Short Stories – 1993, edited by Louise Erdrich and Katrina Kenison. It’s a rough kind of story that begins in an ordinary setting. John Morton sits on a plane, waiting for take-off. He’s irritable, and unfriendly, sarcastic thoughts shoot through his mind. A young woman settles in the middle seat. Something about her reminds him of his adolescent past and a flood of memories returns. Some of them are nice. They are sentimental and show how even wild, all-knowing kids are vulnerable. Others give the reader a look into immature and, possibly, wildly immoral and violent choices. I say “possibly” because the circumstances and people involved have their own, unclear ideas of what’s okay and what’s not. John and the woman on the plane connect in a tenuous way, but their conversation takes a shocking turn and all is lost, despite a last-ditch effort to fix things.

This is the kind of story that builds in a secret way and then hits you with an ugly truth. It’s an uncomfortable subject and I’m still thinking about it and Gaitskill’s characters. That’s a perfect gauge for a successful story, what it does to you when you finish.

The fact that Gaitskill describes a woman on the plane, but titles her story about a girl is interesting to me. Maybe it’s because this woman reminds John of the girl he knew?

A great thinking story!

Mary Gaitskill
Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill is an American author of essays, short stories and novels. Her book, Bad Behavior: Stories, was first published in 1988 and was re-released in 2009. Gaitskill is a National Book Award Finalist for her novel, Veronica, published in 2005.

In the Contributors’ Notes of The Best American Short Stories, Mary Gaitskill talks about the reader response to “The Girl on the Plane.” When it first appeared in Mirabella, some readers complained about the story, saying it endorsed gang rape. Other readers felt that the story was “an aggressively moralistic antirape statement.” One man commented to Gaitskill’s editor, “I mean, what am I supposed to feel?”  This statement jumped out at me and when I read further, I discovered how strongly Gaitskill feels about reader responsibility. Her response? “Stop asking ‘What am I supposed to feel?’ Why would an adult look to me or to any other writer to tell him or her what to feel? You’re not supposed to feel anything. You feel what you feel. Where you go with it is your responsibility. If a writer chooses to aggressively let you know what he or she feels, where you go with that is still your responsibility.” I really like that philosophy because of how it forces individual thought.

Here are some links with more information about Mary Gaitskill, including a more recent interview.

Wikipedia article on Gaitskill

Amazon author page

Interview with Gaitskill on Believer Magazine

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