The Best Things
Recently, there has been a television commercial that has the saying “there are some things money can’t buy.” The story “The Practical Heart” by Allan Gurganus could be used for this ad. It is about a wealthy family who is forced into poverty when they visit America. Her family heritage, the way in which she gets the painting, and the painting itself are all factors in Muriel restoring her family dignity.
Muriel’s family heritage is a factor because without it dignity is not there to be restored. They lived on a seven-acre compound called “Sunnyside.” Sunnyside had a big stone house and an orchard. The father was a writer and Professor who had published four books. He was educated by tutors at his home. He was skilled in Greek and Latin and could recite three-day’s worth of poetry. Muriel, the eldest daughter, was a child prodigy on the piano and had received excellent notices. All of this is a reason for Muriel to have the portrait done. Her family is now living in poverty and is looked down upon by people who should be looking up. By having the portrait done, the dignity the family once had can be restored. “He saved you, and, with you, redeemed your clan’s tarnished dignity”(39). Muriel sees that Sargent can capture the truth in his paintings and believes that he will be able to capture the true beauty inside her.
The way in which Muriel goes about getting the painting is also a factor because it is the only way to achieve her goal. Muriel saves and sacrifices for years in order to have the means to visit Sargent. When she is finally able to go, she knows that she must conduct herself in a manner that gives respect to the great artist. “Knowing they would need the added respectability its notepaper afforded”(47), she stays in the village’s best hotel. She tours churches to give the appearance of not travelling all the way only for the painting. She wears her best clothes and converses with Sargent knowingly. She plays the part of someone who is worthy of being painted by the great one. Had Muriel not gone about it in the manner she did, the painting would never have came to be. It sets up the scene.
The scene in which the portrait takes place is important because it sets Muriel’s painting apart from other’s, such as Mrs. Armour’s. The artist made it seem that Muriel was allowing him to paint her rather than the opposite. “May I impose on you”(51). Mrs. Armour paid for her painting with money made by packing meat. Muriel Fraser paid for her painting with an appreciation for art that only her family heritage could have given. “Something there revealed a respect for art so surrendered, so complete, it could not be ordered on demand.”(51)
Finally, the portrait itself restores the family’s dignity. The painting is hung above the fireplace in the family’s flat. People come to see it. Muriel is asked to lend the picture to an exhibition in New York. A caption in one of the papers that reproduced the portrait called Muriel “the distinguished local pianist”(53). These are all examples of the dignity that the painting gives to the family. Upon looking at the painting, you see the portrayal of a rightfully proud woman. She is proud of her Scottish heritage and the goal she has accomplished. “The one depicted corner of her mouth shows something gleeful, as if the subject is plotting or, indeed, achieving, at the very moment of depiction, a goal”(53). The way in which Muriel is portrayed restores the families lost dignity.
The Practical Heart by Allan Gurganus