Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Wallace Stegner’s story takes its meaning from two themes that unfold simultaneously. One is a delineation of the character of the father and the effects that an ungenerous, hard land has had on his spirit and personality. The other is the story of a young boy’s rite of passage into a more complex world in which his father loses stature and authority in his eyes. The gift of the gun is a pivotal moment in this story. Although the father is the one in the story who represents killing, it is Mr. Garfield who gives the gun—the implement of death—to the son. Now that taking life is no longer the exclusive domain of the father, it gains a new dimension: It must be done thoughtfully. When Mr. Garfield gives the gun conditionally, making the boy promise to kill only cruel and bloodthirsty animals, the boy’s sense of responsibility changes dramatically. He now has two mentors; his father is no longer the absolute authority, so he must weigh ethical questions within a more complex system of thought and feeling.

These two interdependent themes take on greater significance in the historical context of the story’s creation. Originally published in January, 1941, “Butcher Bird” speaks directly to the contemporary debate over the war in Europe and the question of whether the United States should become involved. The story speaks to painful, difficult decisions about whether to kill, whom to kill, and—if they exist—the justifications for killing. The boy, as well as the reader, is caught between the values represented by the father and Mr. Garfield. By the end of the story, the father has revealed himself to be hotheaded, to kill out of anger and a need for control, and to do so indiscriminately. Mr. Garfield introduces a more pacifist position; his conditional gift of the gun forces these questions to the surface.