Katherine Anne Porter’s story is subtitled “1896–1905,” but she wrote it in 1936, and the story has the unmistakable atmosphere of the Great Depression. Characters of ordinary background seem helplessly entangled in a web of Determinism in “Noon Wine”: the lazy if well-meaning dairy farmer Mr. Thompson; the physically debilitated if kind Mrs. Thompson; their two scruffy, mischievous little boys; and their silent Swedish handyman Mr. Olaf Helton, who causes the prosperity of the farm with his conscientious care of the property. As Edward Butscher notes, Porter manages to “plumb the dark, modernist undercurrents (823)” of such earlier writers as Henry James, Willa Cather, and James Joyce and to anticipate the gothic perspective of Flannery O’Connor. (See MODERNISM.)
Just as the Thompsons are on a smoothly moving, ordinary keel—thanks to Olaf, to whom they are grateful and who lives a quiet routine life—the odious Mr. Hatch bursts into their lives, informing Mr. Thompson that Olaf is an escapee from a mental institution in North Dakota, where he hacked his own brother to death with an ax. Hatch wants to take Olaf back to the asylum and collect a reward. When Olaf arrives on the scene and Thompson sees Mr. Hatch appear to stab Olaf, Thompson strikes Mr. Hatch with an ax and kills him. Olaf becomes insane and is killed resisting capture by the sheriff and his men; Mr. Thompson is later acquitted in a local trial of any criminal charges of causing Hatch’s death. Mr. Thompson, however, worried that his neighbors believe him guilty despite the verdict, forces Mrs. Thompson to ride around the country with him to back up his story. Finally, after his wife has a nightmare, his grown sons accuse him of scaring her to death. On the pretense of going to fetch a doctor for his wife, Mr. Thompson takes his shotgun, walks out into a field, writes a suicide note yet again protesting his innocence in Hatch’s death, rigs the weapon, and kills himself.
Porter brilliantly dramatizes Mrs. Thompson’s sense of moral failure when she must, as she sees it, lie for her husband as she accompanies him on his endless rounds to convince the neighbors of his innocence. Her nightmares and her fear of him show that she does not completely believe in it herself: Before he kills himself, Thompson is condemned by his own wife and sons. Nor does she see herself as free of blame: She judges her own behavior as a mixture of innocence and guilt and cannot face the consequences. The knowledge of good and evil cannot save Mr. or Mrs. Thompson or their Swedish hired man, all antiheroic in their common moral weakness. Perhaps a lesson emerges, however, in Mrs. Thompson’s observation that violence lies at the heart of the matter: Men, she muses bitterly, seem compelled to respond to life in rough and violent ways.
Porter anchors the chillingly bleak tale in concepts of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and original sin, as well as in the determinism or fatalism of myth. Despite her characters’ success in overcoming obstacles to frontier survival, they cannot avoid the destiny that overtakes them.
Butscher, Edward. “Noon Wine.” In Reference Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson, 823–824Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.
Demouy, Jane Krause. Katherine Anne Porter’s Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.
Porter, Katherine Anne. Flowering Judas and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935.
Tanner, James T. F. The Texas Legacy of Katherine Anne Porter. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1990.
Unrue, Darlene H. Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story
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