Katherine Anne Porter’s (May 15, 1890 – September 18, 1980) short fiction is noted for its sophisticated use of symbolism, complex exploitation of point of view, challenging variations of ambiguously ironic tones, and profound analyses of psychological and social themes. Her career can be divided into three main (overlapping) periods of work, marked by publications of her three collections: The first period, from 1922 to 1935, saw the publication of Flowering Judas, and Other Stories; the second, from 1930 to 1939, ended with the publication of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels; and the third, from 1935 to 1942, shaped many of her characters that later appear in the collection The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories. Her one novel and two stories “The Fig Tree” and “Holiday” were published long after the last collection of short stories, in 1962 and 1960, respectively. These constitute a coda to the body of her work in fiction.
From 1922 to 1935, Porter’s fiction is concerned with the attempts of women to accommodate themselves to, or to break the bounds of, socially approved sexual roles. They usually fail to achieve the identities that they seek; instead, they ironically become victims of their own or others’ ideas of what they ought to be. Violeta of “Virgin Violeta” fantasizes about her relationship with her cousin Carlos, trying to understand it according to the idealistic notions that she has learned from church and family; when Carlos responds to her sensual reality, she is shocked and disillusioned. The ironies of Violeta’s situation are exploited more fully, and more artfully, in “María Concepción,” “Magic,” and “He.”
In the first, María manages, through violence, to assert her identity through the social roles that she is expected to play in her primitive society; she kills her sensual rival, María Rosa, seizes the baby of her victim, and retrieves her wandering husband. Social norms are also triumphant over poor Ninette, the brutalized prostitute of “Magic,” in which the narrator is implicated by her own ironic practice of distance from her story and her employer, Madame Blanchard. The mother of “He,” however, cannot maintain her distance from the image that she has projected of her mentally disabled son; she is willing to sacrifice him, as she had the suckling pig, to preserve the social image she values of herself toward others. In the end, however, Mrs. Whipple embraces, helplessly and hopelessly, the victim of her self-delusion: She holds her son in tragic recognition of her failures toward him, or she holds him out of ironic disregard for his essential need of her understanding. “He” does not resolve easily into reconciliation of tone and theme.
Images of symbolic importance organize the ironies of such stories as “Rope,” “Flowering Judas,” “Theft,” and “The Cracked Looking-Glass.” In the first story, a husband and wife are brought to the edge of emotional chaos by a piece of rope that the husband brought home instead of coffee wanted by his wife. As a symbol, the rope ties them together, keeps them apart, and threatens to hang them both. “Flowering Judas,” one of Porter’s most famous stories, develops the alienated character of Laura from her resistance to the revolutionary hero Braggioni, to her refusal of the boy who sang to her from her garden, to her complicity in the death of Eugenio in prison. At the center of the story, in her garden and in her dream, Laura is linked with a Judas tree in powerfully mysterious ways: as a betrayer, as a rebellious and independent spirit. Readers will be divided on the meaning of the tree, as they will be on the virtue of Laura’s character.
The Cracked Looking-Glass
The same ambivalence results from examining the symbolic function of a cracked mirror in the life of Rosaleen, the point-of-view character in “The Cracked Looking-Glass.” This middle-aged Irish beauty sees herself as a monster in her mirror, but she cannot replace the mirror with a new one any more than she can reconcile her sexual frustration with her maternal affection for her aged husband, Dennis. This story twists the May-December stereotype into a reverse fairy tale of beauty betrayed, self deceived, and love dissipated. Rosaleen treats young men as the sons she never had to rear, and she represses her youthful instincts to nurse her impotent husband in his old age. She does not like what she sees when she looks honestly at herself in the mirror, but she will not replace the mirror of reality, cracked as she sees it must be.
More honest and more independent is the heroine of “Theft,” an artist who chooses her independence at the cost of sexual fulfillment and social gratification; she allows her possessions, material and emotional, to be taken from her, but she retains an integrity of honesty and spiritual independence that are unavailable to most of the other characters in these early stories. A similar strength of character underlies the dying monologue of Granny Weatherall, but her strength has purchased her very little certainty about meaning. When she confronts death as a second jilting, Granny condemns death’s cheat as a final insult to life; she seems ironically to make meaningful in her death the emptiness that she has struggled to deny in her life.
In the middle period of her short fiction, Porter’s characters confront powerful threats of illusion to shatter their tenuous holds on reality. Romantic ideals and family myths combine to shape the formative circumstances for Miranda in “Old Mortality.” Divided into three parts, this story follows the growth of the young heroine from 1885, when she is eight, to 1912, when she is recently married against her father’s wishes. Miranda and her older sister, Maria, are fascinated by tales of their legendary Aunt Amy, their father’s sister whose honor he had risked his life to defend in a duel, and who died soon after she married their Uncle Gabriel. The first part of the story narrates the family’s anecdotes about Aunt Amy and contrasts her with her cousin Eva, a plain woman who participated in movements for women’s rights. Part 2 of the story focuses on Miranda’s disillusionment with Uncle Gabriel, whom she meets at a racetrack while she is immured in a church school in New Or leans; he is impoverished, fat, and alcoholic, remarried to a bitter woman who hates his family, and he is insensitive to the suffering of his winning racehorse.
Part 3 describes Miranda’s encounter with cousin Eva on a train carrying them to the funeral of Uncle Gabriel. Here, Miranda’s romantic image of Aunt Amy is challenged by Eva’s skeptical memory, but Miranda refuses to yield her vision entirely to Eva’s scornful one. Miranda hopes that her father will embrace her when she returns home, but he remains detached and disapproving of her elopement. She realizes that from now on she must live alone, separate, and alienated from her family. She vows to herself that she will know the truth about herself, even if she can never know the truth about her family’s history. The story ends, however, on a note of critical skepticism about her vow, suggesting its hopefulness is based upon her ignorance.
Self-delusion and selfish pride assault Mr. Thompson in “Noon Wine” until he can no longer accept their terms of compromise with his life. A lazy man who lets his south Texas farm go to ruin, he is suddenly lifted to prosperity by the energetic, methodical work of a strangely quiet Swede, Mr. Helton. This man appears one day in 1896 to ask Mr. Thompson for work, and he remains there, keeping to himself and occasionally playing the tune of “Noon Wine” on his harmonica. The turn into failure and tragedy is more sudden than the turn to prosperity had been. Mr. Hatch, an obnoxious person, comes to Mr. Thompson looking for Helton, wanted for the killing of Helton’s brother in North Dakota. Thompson angrily attacks and kills Hatch, and Helton flees. Helton, however, is captured, beaten, and thrown in jail, where he dies. Thompson is acquitted of murder at his trial.
Thompson, however, cannot accept his acquittal. He believes that his neighbors think that he is really guilty. His wife is uncertain about his guilt, and his two sons not only are troubled by his part in the deaths but also accuse him of mistreating their mother. Burdened by pains of conscience, Thompson spends his days after the trial visiting neighbors and retelling the story of Hatch’s visit. Thompson believes he saw Hatch knife Helton, but no one else saw it, and Helton had no knife wound. The problem for Thompson is that he cannot reconcile what he saw and what was real. All of his life has been spent in a state of delusion, and this crisis of conscience threatens to destroy his capacity to accept life on his own visionary terms. The irony of the story is that Thompson must kill himself to vindicate his innocence, but when he does so, he paradoxically accepts the consequences of his delusions even as he asserts his right to shape reality to fit his view of it.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider
Love and death mix forces to press Miranda through a crisis of vision in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” This highly experimental story mixes dreams with waking consciousness, present with past, and illness with health. Set during World War I, it analyzes social consequences of a military milieu, and it uses that setting to suggest a symbolic projection of the pressures that build on the imagination and identity of the central character. Miranda is a writer of drama reviews for a newspaper; her small salary is barely enough to support her, and so when she balks at buying Liberty Bonds, she has her patriotism questioned. This worry preoccupies her thoughts and slips into her dreaming experience. In fact, the opening of the story seems to be an experience of a sleeper who is slowly coming awake from a dream of childhood in which the adult’s anxieties about money are mixed. Uncertainty about the mental state of Miranda grows as she mixes her memories of past with present, allowing past feelings to affect present judgments.
Miranda meets a young soldier, Adam, who will soon be sent to battle. They both know that his fate is sealed, since they are both aware of the survival statistics for soldiers who make assaults from trenches. Miranda becomes gravely ill just before Adam leaves for the war front, and he nurses her through the earliest days of her sickness. Her delirium merges her doctor with Adam, with the German enemy, and with figures of her dreams. By this process, Miranda works through her attractions to Adam, to all men, and she survives to assert her independence as a professional artist. The climax of her dream, echoing certain features of Granny Weatherall’s, is her refusal to follow the pale rider, who is Death. This feature of her dream is present at the beginning of the story, to anticipate that Miranda will have to contend with this, resolve her inner battle, even before the illness that constitutes her physical struggle with death. The men of her waking life enter her dreams as Death, and so when Adam actually dies in battle, Miranda is symbolically assisted in winning her battle for life. The story makes it seem that her dreaming is the reality of the men, that their lives are figments of her imagination. Her recovery of health is a triumph, therefore, of her creative energies as well as an assertion of her independent feminine identity.
In the final, sustained period of her work in short fiction, from 1935 to 1942, Porter subjects memories to the shaping power of creative imagination, as she searches out the episodes that connect to make the character of Miranda, from “The Source” to “The Grave,” and she traces the distorting effects of social pressures on children, wives, and artists in the remaining stories of the third collection. The crucial, shaping episodes of Miranda’s childhood constitute the core elements of several stories in the collection called The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories. Beginning with a sequence under the title “The Old Order,” Miranda’s growth is shaped by her changing perceptions of life around her. Helping her to interpret events are her grandmother, Sophia Jane, and her grandmother’s former black slave and lifetime companion, Aunt Nannie; in addition, Great-Aunt Eliza plays an important role in Miranda’s life in the story that was later added to the sequence, “The Fig Tree.” Two of the stories of this collection, “The Circus” and “The Grave,” are examples of remarkable compression and, particularly in “The Grave,” complex artistry.
Miranda cries when she sees a clown perform high-wire acrobatics in “The Circus.” Her fear is a child’s protest against the clown’s courtship with death. There is nothing pleasurable about it for Miranda. In fact, she seems to see through the act to recognize the threat of death itself, in the white, skull-like makeup of the clown’s face. The adults enjoy the spectacle, perhaps insensitive to its essential message or, on the other hand, capable of appreciating the artist’s defiance of death. In any event, young Miranda is such a problem that her father sends her home with one of the servants, Dicey. The point of poignancy is in Miranda’s discovery of Dicey’s warm regard for her despite the fact that Dicey had keenly wanted to stay at the circus. When Miranda screams in her sleep, Dicey lies beside her to comfort her, to protect her even from the dark forces of her nightmares. This sacrifice is not understood by the child Miranda, although it should be apparent to the adult who recalls it.
“The Grave” is more clear about the function of time in the process of understanding. Miranda and her brother Paul explore open graves of their family while hunting. They find and exchange a coffin screw and a ring, then skin a rabbit that Paul killed, only to find that the rabbit is pregnant with several young that are “born” dead. The experience of mixing birth with death, sexual awareness with marriage and death, is suddenly illuminated for Miranda years later when she recalls her brother on that day while she stands over a candy stand in faraway Mexico.
The Downward Path to Wisdom
Other stories of The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories collection have disappointed readers, but they have virtues of art nevertheless. The strangely powerful story of little Stephen in “The Downward Path to Wisdom” has painful insights that may remind one of some of the stories by Flannery O’Connor, a friend of Porter. The little boy who is the object of concern to the family in this story grows to hate his father, mother, grandmother, and uncle; in fact, he sings of his hate for everyone at the end of the tale. His hatred is understandable, since no one genuinely reaches out to love him and help him with his very real problems of adjustment. His mother hears his song, but she shows no alarm; she may think that he does not “mean” what he sings, or she may not really “hear” what he is trying to say through his “art.” A similar theme of hatred and emotional violence is treated in the heartless marital problems of Mr. and Mrs. Halloran of “A Day’s Work.” Here, however, the violence is borne by physical as well as emotional events, as the story ends with a deadly battle between the aging husband and wife. First one, and then the other, believes the other one is dead. The reader is not sure if either is right.
The Leaning Tower
Charles Upton, the artist hero of “The Leaning Tower,” encounters emotional and physical violence during his sojourn in Berlin in 1931. When he accidentally knocks down and breaks a replica of the Leaning Tower, Charles expresses in a symbolic way his objection to values that he finds in this alien city. He must endure challenges by various other people, with their lifestyles and their foreign values, to discover an underlying humanity that he shares with them. Although he is irritated when he finds that his landlady, Rosa, has repaired the Leaning Tower, he cannot say exactly why he should be so. German nationalism and decadent art have combined to shake Charles’s integrity, but he searches for inner resources to survive. The story concludes with a typically ambiguous gesture of Porter’s art: Charles falls into his bed, telling himself he needs to weep, but he cannot. The world is invulnerable to sorrow and pity.
The Fig Tree
The coda of her work in short fiction, “The Fig Tree” and “Holiday,” are revisits to earlier stories, as Porter reexamines old themes and old subjects with new emphases: “The Fig Tree” relocates Miranda in the matriarchal setting of her childhood, and “Holiday” reviews ironies of misunderstanding alien visions. In “The Fig Tree,” young Miranda buries a dead baby chicken beneath a fig tree, and then thinks she hears it chirping from beneath the earth. Frantic with anxiety, she is unable to rescue it because her grandmother forces her to leave with the family for the country. Later, Miranda’s Great-Aunt Eliza, who constantly studies nature through telescopes and microscopes, explains to Miranda that she hears tree frogs when Miranda thinks she is hearing the weeping of the dead chicken. Her guilt is relieved by this, and since Miranda has emotionally mixed her burial of the chicken with burials of family members, resolution of guilt for one functions as resolution of guilt for the other.
The story of “Holiday” is much different in subject and setting, but its emotional profile is similar to “The Fig Tree.” The narrator spends a long holiday with German immigrants in the backlands of Texas. The hardworking Müllers challenge, by their lifestyle, the values of the narrator, who only gradually comes to understand them and their ways. The most difficult experience to understand, however, is the family’s attitude toward one of the daughters, Ottilie; at first, this girl seems to be only a crippled servant of the family. Gradually, however, the narrator understands that Ottilie is in fact a member of the family. She is mentally disabled and unable to communicate except in very primitive ways. Just when the narrator believes she can appreciate the seemingly heartless ways Ottilie is treated by her family, a great storm occurs and the mother dies. Most of the family follow their mother’s corpse to be buried, but Ottilie is left behind. The narrator thinks Ottilie is desperate to join the funeral train with her family, and so she helps Ottilie on board a wagon and desperately drives to catch up with the family. Suddenly, however, the narrator realizes that Ottilie simply wants to be in the sunshine and has no awareness of the death of her mother. The narrator accepts the radical difference that separates her from Ottilie, from all other human beings, and resigns herself, in freedom, to the universal condition of alienation.
The critical mystery of Katherine Anne Porter’s work in short fiction is in the brevity of her canon. Readers who enjoy her writing must deplore the failure of the artist to produce more than she did, but they will nevertheless celebrate the achievements of her remarkable talent in the small number of stories that she published. Whatever line of analysis one pursues in reading her stories, Porter’s finest ones will repay repeated investments of reading them. They please with their subtleties of technique, from point of view to patterned images of symbolism; they inform with their syntheses of present feeling and past sensation; and they raise imaginative energy with their ambiguous presentations of alien vision. Porter’s stories educate the patiently naïve reader into paths of radical maturity.
Novels: Ship of Fools, 1962.
Nonfiction: My Chinese Marriage, 1921; Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts, 1922; What Price Marriage, 1927; The Days Before, 1952; A Defence of Circe, 1954; A Christmas Story, 1967; The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings, 1970; The Selected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, 1970; The Never-Ending Wrong, 1977; Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, 1990.
Poetry: Katherine Anne Porter’s Poetry, 1996 (Darlene Harbour Unrue, editor).
Bloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. Katherine Anne Porter’s Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,1993.
Fornataro-Neil, M. K. “Constructed Narratives and Writing Identity in the Fiction of Katherine Anne Porter.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Fall, 1998): 349-361.
Graham, Don. “Katherine Anne Porter’s Journey from Texas to theWorld.” Southwest Review 84 (1998): 140-153.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Spencer, Virginia, ed. “Flowering Judas”: Katherine Anne Porter. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Stout, Janis. Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Titus, Mary. The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Walsh, Thomas F. Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.