Analysis of Katherine Anne Porter’s The Grave

In the mid-1930s, Katherine Anne Porter’s early work was attracting the favorable attention of America’s burgeoning New Critics, whose techniques of close literary analysis to this day remain useful for reading Porter’s tightly written, symbol and imageladen fiction. Her story “The Grave,” for example, first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly, which was edited at that time by Allen Tate, and additional titles by Porter were selected for publication in the Southern Review by then-coeditors Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.

In exemplary New Critical readings, the two latter critics wrote important responses to Porter’s work, Warren in “Katherine Anne Porter: Irony with a Center” and Brooks in “On ‘The Grave.’ ” Warren, for example, praises the body of Porter’s work, citing its adherence to the New Critical hallmarks of controlling irony, balance through paradox, contradiction, and dialectic, not to mention “the underlying structure of contrast and tension” and the “counterpoint of incident and implication” (62). Brooks, writing expressly on “The Grave,” provides additional New Critical touchstones omitted from his colleague’s observations: Not only is “The Grave” an initiation story (a form favored by the New Critics), but its patterns of imagery admirably serve the purposes of objective correlative, ultimately unifying the story by reconciling its conflicts and “bringing into focus its underlying theme” (176). Indeed, Porter’s “The Grave” seemed uniquely fitted for New Critical explication by virtue of its symbolism of womb and tomb, ring and dove; by its juxtaposition of sweetness with corruption, flight with boundaries, intuition with experience, philosophical depth with childlike simplicity; and by its conflation of life, death, sex, and maternity.

Even read on its own, “The Grave” is a story of motherless children; reading it in the context of the several accompanying stories among which Porter eventually placed it in The Old Order (1955), we know nine-year-old Miranda and 12-year-old Paul as doubly bereft, not only through the long-ago death of their mother, but also through the more recent death of their matriarchal grandmother, who even in her absence is simply and definitively “the Grandmother.” The Grandmother’s death has the effect on Miranda of relaxing the demands for ladylike dress and comportment that would otherwise have directed her behavior. On the other hand, implied in the story are the financial difficulties into which the Grandmother’s passing has plunged Miranda along with her father, her brother Paul, and her sister Maria. Although relishing her “summer roughing” attire, Miranda is still aware of the special economies that make roughing it and thus saving her good clothes a necessity. Pondering the problem of her late grandmother’s expectations of and for her and the joys and trials freedom from them gives, Miranda hardly knows which to embrace and which to discount.

Robert Penn Warren

An additional economy structuring the narrative is the need to sell long-held farm acreage, causing the displacement of several coffins from the family’s small private cemetery. The now-emptied graves prove irresistible to the children, who must trespass on land no longer theirs in order to achieve the thrill of selfimposed fear as they dig about in space that has once held dead family members. In their play, they discover the two objects that bespeak the destinies and desires of which the children are only vaguely aware: a silver coffin screw and a gold wedding ring. Paul glories in what he feels is his unique possession of the doveshaped coffin screw with a “deep round hollow” (363) where the breast should be. Miranda claims the intricately carved ring, only to know immediate dissatisfaction with her roughing about clothes as she places it on her thumb. Wearing the ring produces a desire for a cold bath and a becoming dress and sash in which she might display herself “in a wicker chair under the trees” (365), and she actually considers wordlessly abandoning Paul to seek them out. Then, as she hesitates between her newly formulated vision of self-identity and her more accustomed fraternal loyalty, Paul flushes a rabbit from the brush, shooting and killing it.

This final act is the most significant of the day, forcing the two children from the liminal space of unvoiced and unacknowledged intuitions—those hints toward actual knowledge they had each responded to in claiming the dove and the ring—into experiential knowledge. Skinning the rabbit, Paul finds that it carries unborn young, themselves now forever liminal—unborn and thus untouched by death, having neither past nor future. The image is of a closed circuit, like the ring we know Miranda still wears on her thumb but of which no further mention is made in the story. When Paul and Miranda agree never to speak to anyone of the incident, they leave behind the rabbit babies, and a part of their childhood, wrapped within the dead body of the mother and hidden away in the sage bushes.

The irony that Warren claims as the center of this work relies in actuality on the disruption of gender expectations that we experience with our final view of Miranda, 20 years older and “in a strange city of a strange country” (367). Her vision of the cool wicker chair under the trees has failed to materialize, giving way to a busy foreign marketplace, the sights and smells of which—particularly a tray of sweets in the shapes of little animals—evoke for her that long-ago memory of the graves and the unborn rabbits. And like the image of the dove with the hollowed out center, “The Grave” as narrative is itself unexpectedly “decentered” by her final vision of Paul, 12 once more, examining the coffin screw, the symbol by which Miranda has lived her life in spite of her initial choice of the ring on that now-distant summer day.

New Criticism: An Essay

Brooks, Cleanth. “On ‘The Grave.’ ” Yale Review 55 (Winter 1966): 275–279.
Porter, Katherine Anne. “The Grave.” In The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1979.
Warren, Robert Penn. “Katherine Anne Porter (Irony with a Center).” Kenyon Review 4 (Winter 1942): 29–42.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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