Ginny has a mind that hangs only very lightly on conversation. It often wanders to peripheral objects and situations—noticing and classifying such things as Marguerite’s “severely black hair” (Oates, 1984, p. 114) and discrepancies between Herbert’s describing himself as tired and his refreshed and invigorated “‘social’ manner” (p. 115). Ginny also demonstrates her tendency to introspect and yet to keep those thoughts hidden. This might perhaps be attributed to fear and a preoccupation with social correctness. One example of this is in her conversation with Herbert. She is distracted as she wonders about the propriety of asking him about the location of Nairobi. Another more poignant example comes at the end of the episode where she and Oliver part. She desires to see him beyond the evening, but does not venture to ask him. She also demonstrates her tendency to single out and analyse small words or gestures, such as Oliver’s comment “You were lovely up there” (Oates, p. 17). Ginny pounces upon the word “were” and infers from this use of the past tense that Oliver means that she is no longer “lovely” now that the meeting has ended. This also constitutes another demonstration her tendency to notice and classify peripheral things.
Oliver engages Ginny to accompany him as a partner at a meeting with his friends. This points toward some level of uncertainty in his character, as it implies that he is unwilling or unable to handle being considered single and alone by these friends. In fact, insecurity seems to be a salient part of his character, and it shows in his demeanour and in his unwillingness to assert himself in the situation. However, the lack of security appears to hide a more sinister, or at least a more serious side of him. Ginny observes that while he claims to have another engagement for which he must leave, he secretly enjoys his conversation with Marguerite. In fact, she mentions noting at that time “something vehement and cruel though at the same time unmistakably boyish in his face” (Oates, p. 115). This duality of nature lends an air of mystery to Oliver’s character, as one might wonder how this particular cruelty and boyishness are connected to the cryptic farce of a relationship that he has conjured up for the evening. He appears to at once want to be with the Crewses and desirous of being away from them, and this uncertainty is evident in the disconnect that sometimes surfaces between his words and actions.
A major theme of this work is the existence of depth beneath the superficial films of conversation and appearances. Coupled with this is also a strong indication of a double standard among the majority of the characters in this scene, pointing toward hypocrisy as another major theme of the work. The manner in which Ginny deviates from the episode’s conversations and explores trails that lead to insights demonstrates this theme. Furthermore, she is described as “aloof, indifferent, just slightly bored, but unfailingly courteous: a mark of good breeding” (p. 115). This highlights the fact that though she participated in the customary social graces on the surface, she was at heart disinclined to do so. This is a mild example of hypocrisy in the story.
The theme of hypocrisy is found strongest in the misrepresented relationship between Ginny and Oliver. The responsibility for this rests heavily on Oliver’s shoulder, as he seems to hold all intelligence regarding the unanswered question of why such a lie was being perpetrated upon the Crewses. This ties into the related idea of depth lying beneath the surface, as the apparent innocence of two couples’ meeting for a short conversation covers a much deeper truth. This truth involves Oliver’s dual and polarised words and actions. He continually insists that he must leave Marguerite and Herbert, yet the reader is privy both to the fact that this is a lie and to the opposing and confounding fact that he appears to be enjoying his conversation with Marguerite. One is forced to wonder why he does not just stay with the Crewses, and this leads the reader to make further conjectures that something much more complicated lies beneath the surface of their relationship.
The story is set predominantly in the Crewses apartment, which is located up high on the eighteenth floor of a building in New York City. It overlooks Central Park. The apartment does somehow contribute to the theme of the story, especially where it is revealed that the darkness of the hallway gives way to a much lighted interior. The initial darkness might be compared with the film that covers and obscures the broader and more authentic pictures of the relationships introduced in this story. The image of a dark hallway may also represent the journey that Ginny’s mind takes in understanding the roles of the other persons with which she interacts on that day. The elevation of the apartment also contributes to the necessity of Ginny and Oliver’s keeping up the pretence of being a couple beyond the end of the meeting. The Crewses were likely able to view the walking couple for a considerable distance beyond the entrance of the apartment building.
Joyce Carol Oates, novelist, playwright, professor and recipient of several awards for her works (Gale Group, 1999; HarperCollins, 2006), explores poignant issues and themes in her story “Nairobi.” In the process, she reveals complexity in the characters and the relationships they form. She skilfully uses setting and the interaction of the characters to reveal the dual and related themes of hypocrisy and underlying complexity. Furthermore, the psychological stream of intelligence that the reader receives from the Ginny’s mind gives clues as to the locations and even the origins of much of the hypocrisy to be found in the tale. “Nairobi” borders on mystery, as the elements of the story—theme, setting, and characters—combine to form an intriguing tale that summons the reader beneath the surface and impels him/her to employ (like Ginny) analysis to uncover the characters’ secrets.
Gale Group, (1999) “Joyce Carol Oates” in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 74, 268-76.
HarperCollins. (2006). “Joyce Carol Oates.” HarperCollins Publishers. New York. Retrieved. September 14, 2006. Available: http://www.harpercollins.com/author/index.aspx?authorid=7275
Oates, J. C. (1999). “Nairobi.” The art of the story: an international anthology of contemporary short stories. Ed. Daniel Halpern. Viking.