Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.

Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Ursula Hegi’s “Doves”

Read the story in SUDDEN FICTION (Continued): 60 New Short-Short Stories. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 

This story shows Ursula Hegi’s strong writing talent. Each time I read this rich little sudden fiction piece, I find more to think about relationships and identity, and about how an effective short-short might be crafted. Hegi’s work is always worth exploring.

Die Morgenzeitung by Hans Hassenteufel


The title, “Doves,” is plural. The pluralized word clearly includes the two purchased doves. But it can include Francine, too. The word “doves” calls to mind phrases like “shy as a dove” or mourning doves. Francine is shy as a dove, is someone who appears to be passive as the doves (who waited for her to lift them out of their box). They, like Francine, are not gaudy “center stage” creatures like the parrot crying “Oh amigo.” They wait to be noticed instead of “clamoring for your attention.” Another common phrase that ran through my mind is “birds of a feather flock together.” Francine and her doves are a good fit and certainly work well together.


The opening sentence and paragraph is both interesting and highly effective. “Francine is having a shy day, the kind of day that makes you feel sad when the elevator man says good afternoon, the kind of day that makes you want to buy two doves.” It is a sentence most of us can identify with but likely would not have thought to put it so well. It lures a reader to read on. Is the “shy day” the same as most of us think about a shy day? It is understandable sadness when someone in a particular gray mood meets someone cheery (the elevator man). But intriguing was the thought that this is the kind of day that would make a person want to go out and buy two doves. That behavior is out of most reader experience so Hegi sets up an attractive defamiliarization right away.

Shy Francine:

Francine lives in a shy gray world, while trying to live in a world other than her own. She listens to opera on NPR, and visits the opera, but she doesn’t quite understand it. She discovers through the doves that even the not-quite-comprehensible-to-her opera, like country western music, is often about “lost love and broken hearts.”

Francine’s Character

One can’t help liking shy Francine who works at K-Mart, subscribes to and invisibly goes to the opera, and makes donations to NPR. She would never steal the program and isn’t like those who steal shoes at K-Mart, all strong hints of her character. It is touching that she leaves the abandoned shoes in the lost and found box, holding them to donate to Goodwill. Francine tries to do the right things. And it is difficult to picture shy Francine as a heartbreaker.

The Doves Move Her from Point A To Point B

The doves help Francine slip into her own life. Through them, she discovers the same theme in opera and country-western music. C&W sings about small love affairs, everyday people affairs, not grand tragic loves of the opera. The doves taught her how to appreciate the “people’s” music. When the couple comes out of the Blue Moon Tavern and Francine hears that snatch of music through the opened door that’s when she “curves her fingers around the door handle” (as the doves did–their claws “curved around the folds of fabric”) and enters the world of life– a life for herself.

Mirroring Between Francine and the Doves

In addition to moving Francine from Point A to Point Be, Hegi makes great use of repeating words and images. These repetitions have fine effect on the overall artistry of this story.

Notice how Francine’s physical movements are mirrored in the doves. The doves try to shield themselves from the NPR donation plea by their movements—they would “move their wing feathers forward and pull their heads into their necks.” Francine is annoyed by the spiel herself. The doves tilt their heads to the C&W music on the radio. Francine makes the same movements. She is invisible at the opera and at the bar she mimics the doves’ movements. She “draws her shoulders around herself”. Until she gets out of that gray November mood with the summer fruity taste of the fuzzy navel– then she eases “into the space her body fills.”

At that point the slim man with the cowboy hat asks her to dance. That’s when “she becomes the woman in all the songs… the woman who leaves them, the woman who keeps breaking their hearts.” She has become herself, a woman caught up in the color and music and rhythm of life and living. She becomes fully alive, fully herself, there in that small bar. Someone’s heart might indeed be broken. Certainly not intentionally but no one can predict how such things might go. At the same time this shy dove just might find her own love, too. Francine is fully in her own world now, where birds of a feather can flock together. She finds, at least on this night, an amigo.

The Red Boots

Also effective is the way Hegi uses red boots (Francine claims to feel like a woman wearing red boots) to “move” Francine to a different state of being. Lots of women know the power of wearing red footwear (red shoes, red boots, ruby slippers, etc.) and the courage it takes to wear something that boldly says “Look at me!” Using footwear as a symbol is another effective writing strategy in Hegi’s story.

With these small but powerful details Ursula Hegi shows she is clearly an artist in control of her craft.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto,
 twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Ursula Hegi: Ursula Hegi is a German-born American writer and currently an instructor in the MFA program at Stoneybrook Southampton.

Image: Die Morgenzeitung by Hans Hassenteufel (1887-1943). No medium specified. No size specified. 1929. Public domain.

Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.