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About ten years ago, Tobias Wolff gave a talk in which he said that tenderness is a key element of excellence in life and in literary works. He cited Turgenev and Chekhov, as well as Raymond Carver, as examples of writers whose works embodied tenderness.
It is easy to mistake tenderness for compassion, but compassion seems to suggest a measure of the impersonal. We have compassion for those suffering in Darfur, for example, or those who struggle with AIDS in Africa. Empathy implies greater closeness than compassion, and tendernessconnotes more personal emotion. Tenderness is delicate, gentle. It involves a nearly ineffable emotional exchange between individuals. And it can be deemed more important, ultimately, than even love. People can love one another without tenderness, and tenderness seems much more rare than love in literature and in life.
There is a wealth of tenderness in the two Tobias Wolff stories featured here, “Say Yes” and “Her Dog.” In “Say Yes,” the question arises, Do you love me for who I am, regardless of externals like race and culture? The wife in the story wants the affirmation, and the husband is faced with a dilemma. Does he insist on his belief about race and marriage, or does he simply affirm their love? The story pursues the contest into a moving crescendo.
In “Her Dog,” the dead wife's pet stands in imaginally for the wife, in a conversation with the widower, and in the dialogue we feel the man's ache and a narrowing of the distance that separates us one from another.