Study Guide

The Downward Path to Wisdom

by Katherine Anne Porter

The Downward Path to Wisdom Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Four-year-old Stephen lives in a chaotic household. The story begins as Papa accuses Mama of spoiling the boy, whom she brusquely pushes from their bedroom. Their servant Marjory calls Stephen “dirty” and “mean” like his father. Soon the family quarreling becomes so severe that Stephen is sent to live with his grandmother.

At Grandma’s house, Stephen gets to know his Uncle David, a large man who roughhouses with him and teaches him to box. One day, Uncle David brings home a large box of advertising balloons that he and Stephen share in a game to see who can blow up the balloons and burst them the fastest.

When the summer ends, Grandma enrolls Stephen in school, where he is surprised to discover people who are mostly his size. He is delighted to learn that these other children have ordinary names such as “Frances” and “Edward,” instead of titles such as “Grandma,” “Uncle,” and “Mommanpoppa”—the only people he has known during his short life. There he discovers that his name is “Stephen,” not “Baby” as his mother calls him, or “Bad Boy” as he is known by the household servants.

At first, Stephen has great fun in school, but he soon becomes embarrassed when other children make fun of his dancing and his clay cat sculpture. He is particularly eager to impress a girl named Frances and is happy when she accepts two of Uncle David’s balloons. That same afternoon, he climbs up on a chair to...

(The entire section is 586 words.)