Everything is Green
This story's brevity and ambiguous ending make it challenging to make concrete or decisive claims about the plot, particularly the status of Mitch and Mayfly's relationship in the end. The story's meaning, therefore, is highly interpretive.
A couple, Mayfly and Mitch, begin by arguing over an undetermined indiscretion that Mayfly has been accused of committing. Mayfly refutes this accusation and, in doing so, appears to confirm Mitch’s suspicions. Mitch goes on to tell Mayfly that, regardless of whether she is guilty of the particular act in question, there are too many problems in their relationship, including the disparity between their ages/maturity. He also speaks of how he needs to spend more time thinking of himself and less time focusing on her. Her response is the observation that "everything" outside of their trailer is green. Mitch observes that "every thing" is not green. In the end, he sees Mayfly differently
- Mitch (narrator)
Mitch and Mayfly's views of the world are contrasted through the way each of them sees the world outside.
Mitch begins the story with the impression that he is separate from the circumstances that surround him. He is unable to see that he is embedded in a context larger than himself. He is grounded in the tangible feelings that become knowledge to him, reflected by the many “I…” statements in the third paragraph (229). Mitch is direct in his language when speaking of himself because he is clear and planted in what he understands. To clarify, Mitch’s context doesn’t necessarily imply selfishness. He simply frames his experiences in what is most easily accessible and clear to him. Repeated references to “the truth” (229) and the taste of “something true”(230) show that Mitch seeks a concrete truth that is not contingent on its surroundings.
When Mayfly says that "Everything is green," she refers to the world outside the window. Mitch projects his own frustration and anger onto what he sees outside. When he wants to respond to Mayfly about the green outside, he sees the shrubs and grass that are green from new growth, but even the green itself is a “mess” (230) to him. Quickly he sees what things are not green- obviously not “every thing” (230). Mitch is seeing in the context of his dissatisfaction; he sees (possibly even seeks out) the dirty, messy, and out of place. His inner frustration with Mayfly and belief that she has wronged him inform his critical view of the world out the window. This inner frustration carries over into a frustration for Mitch's own living situation in the trailer park. Mitch allows his emotional and mental state to inform his observations of the outer world. His statement, "Every thing is not green," is not only a reflection of how he sees the scenery but also his way of expressing that things are not well inside of him.
Mitch experiences a change in his perception by the end of the story. In the beginning of the story, Mitch sees other, Mayfly, as barely existent because he does not see his surroundings. He sees Mayfly as uninvolved, in dreamy light. Mayfly’s physical movements are restricted to the lighting of a cigarette, and position shift on the couch. Her continual gaze out the window, looking “off away” from Mitch, suggest a trance-like daydream, and as Mitch tells the reader, “it’s early, she looks like she is dreaming.”
The change is illustrated by the way he begins to see Mayfly. She is real, present, and able to possess her own view of the world. His statement that “she is my morning” (230) personalizes the realization that Mayfly, although she is outside of Mitch, can be truth to him. The setting can be defined in relation to Mayfly instead of only self. This opens Mitch to the possibility of truths outside himself. The final line, “Say her name” (230), reflects Mitch’s need to label concretely. He labels most every thing he sees: the objects in the sink, the things he has done for Mayfly, the green plants outside, all the objects out the window that are not green. By saying Mayfly’s name, he can cement her existence for himself and acknowledge that he truly sees her.
Although the story is told from Mitch’s point of view, the few words Mayfly speaks give great insight into her mindset. Her perception of herself and of Mitch is informed by the outside. In contrast to Mitch, Mayfly's way of seeing things is dependent on what surrounds her. She looks through the window as a lense to see the outside, rather than as a mirror. This outside context explains the generalizing assertion that “Everything is green.” Most of what is outside is green, and rain and springtime have made the plants greener than usual. With the outside as a reference point, she compares the greenness of what she sees on this morning the view on a normal day. In this comparison it makes sense to say that everything is green. With an anchor outside of herself, Mayfly becomes somewhat removed from her own self. Mayfly's reality is only relative to what she observes as she constantly gazes out the window.
Mayfly’s investment in her surroundings informs the way she reacts to Mitch’s dialogue. After listening to all of his frustrations and his decision to seek his own happiness (likely by ending the relationship) Mayfly feels that such sadness cannot be possible in the context of the green outside. She cannot understand how ugliness and death can be present when she feels surrounded by living, growing beauty. The awe with which she observes the green outside makes Mitch’s statements irrelevant. A relationship cannot be dying amidst abundant rebirth. Just as Mitch’s efforts to see Mayfly seem futile, Mayfly’s view of Mitch is incompatible with the beauty she perceives.
Color is a motif in many of Wallace's stories. it is springtime; the vegetation, from Mitch’s perspective at least, is green, the grass is green and damp
Mayfly and Mitch use the window for different purposes. Mitch uses the window as a mirror through which he faintly sees Mayfly and observes her actions. He continually references Mayfly through the reflection in the wet window, as if he is not actually seeing her but is seeing a picture of her reflecting by the light on the moisture and glass of the window. By the end, he is able to look at Mayfly instead of at her reflection in the window. Mayfly uses the window as a way to view the world outside the trailer. For Mayfly, the window serves as a lens to see the outside, rather than a mirror.
The story is narrated from Mitch's 1st person perspective. Mitch is 48 years old and lives in a trailer park.
DFW’s careful construction of voice creates a character in itself. The prose sounds like the character is speaking, rather than simply narrating the story. This kind of vocal prose can walk a fine line between becoming confusing and distracting to the reader, but Wallace’s syntax, although not what he would normally use when Wallace himself is narrating a story, is clear and logical enough to inform the reader of the speaker’s nature without becoming a hindrance in the understanding of the story. The prose progresses in a chronological, straightforward manner as Mitch narrates each thing he says out loud and his own thoughts as he observes Mayfly. From the simple and straightforward language, Mitch appears to be of average intelligence level, with no intentions of embellishing or adding artistic or unnecessary details. His intentions, rather, seem to be an expression of his own thought process as it relates to the moment captured by the story. Improper grammar, such as clashes between the singular and plural (“there is needs,”), the use of the American Midwestern vernacular (“not to me no more,” “I got to,”), and the minimal use of punctuation, suggest that Mitch lacks education. The low-income level one might assume for resident of a trailer park corroborates this assumption. Mitch’s narration uses a lot of repetitionThe repetition of “I say...I know…I feel…I have…” demonstrates Mitch’s way of seeing the world. He communicates directly without variance in sentence structure. The division of sentences narrates a concrete, sensible progression of statements. He logically follows each statement of commitment to Mayfly with evidence of his dedication. The same structure is echoed in Mitch’s observation of the view outside his trailer, in his use of short, choppy statements of what is green and what is not green. Even Mitch’s own emotional statements are simple and direct; he “can not feel what to do,” he needs to “make everything feel right,” he identifies his own needs. Mitch’s descriptions of Mayfly occur generally in compound sentences of short phrases strung together in the moment they are observed.
The usage of “everything” in contrast to “every thing” is interesting to note. Everything literally defines all the things in a group or class, but more commonly, it’s used to describe a great deal or the most important aspects of something. When we use the colloquial, “Money isn’t everything,” we aren’t saying that money is literally not every thing that exists. Rather, everything commonly implies the most important thing. “Everything is green,” therefore, can be interpreted as a blanket statement to suggest that there is more green than other colors. Mitch’s context of the thinking self necessitates that he look at each thing individually. His statement that “every thing is not green” doesn’t directly argue against Mayfly’s (he does not say, “Everything is not green,”) but rather it illuminates the discrepancy between Mayfly’s perception and his own. The former summarizes the wider picture while the latter examines individual elements.
Mayfly’s name provides insight into the deeper meaning of the story. The mayfly’s scientific name comes from the Greek ephemeros, for “short-lived.” In some languages, the mayfly is referred to as the "one-day fly." They are aquatic insects whose immature stage usually lasts one year in freshwater. The adults are short-lived, from a few minutes to a few days depending on the species.
The mayfly is unique because it takes a great deal of time to grow into an adult, but is only alive for a very short time when it matures. Very often, entire populations of mayfly mature at the same time. For a few days, a large group of mayflies fly around in a sort of dance and then die at the same time. The mayfly is a pollution-sensitive animal who must live in good-quality water.
In the fall 2007 issue of Twentieth Century Literature, Paul Giles mentions the story in an article titled "Sentimental posthumanism: David Foster Wallace." He observes a "familiar strain of American pastoral" in Wallace's writing, noting:
"On one level, then, there is a sense in which "Westward the Course of Empire" exemplifies a familiar strain of American pastoral. This movement westward epitomizes a paradigmatic shift from corruption into authenticity; indeed, the story that immediately precedes "Westward" in Girl with Curious Hair, "Everything Is Green," embodies precisely this kind of pastoralist minimalism, predicated on an ethic of purification and regeneration: "Everything is green she says. Look how green it all is Mitch" (230). Many of the American authors Wallace admires--Whitman, William James, Hemingway, Steinbeck--were similarly concerned to project this kind of pastoral imagination at earlier stages of US civilization, and from this perspective Wallace's originality might be said to reside in the way he reconvenes traditional forms of American cultural idealism in a radically alien technological environment."
The story was first published in Puerto del Sol, vol. 24, no. 1, Fall 1988, and later published in Harper's Magazine. The original ending read, "This is about my everything. I tell her name." The ending was changed to its current state for the September 1989 issue of Harper's.