Essays and Criticism

Contradictions of Mrs. Whipple

Katherine Anne Porter’s short story ‘‘He’’ is told through the eyes of its protagonist, Mrs. Whipple. However, both the eyesight and the insight of Mrs. Whipple are twisted, or convoluted, to the point of creating double vision, resulting in a blurred reality that throws both Mrs. Whipple and the reader off on many misguided trails. There is the surface vision that Mrs. Whipple would like everyone to believe, and that, in fact, she would like to believe herself. Then there is the deeper insight that Mrs. Whipple sometimes touches upon but recoils from the minute it comes into view. Lastly, there is the reality that everyone else envisions, to which Mrs. Whipple appears to be completely blind. This variety of interpretations leads to many contradictions for Mrs. Whipple, keeping her in a kind of no-man’sland of chaos and confusion.

Within the first few lines of Porter’s story, Mrs. Whipple is described as a woman who ‘‘was all for taking what was sent and calling it good.’’ However, Mrs. Whipple’s character is more clearly defined with the qualifying statement that follows this. It is Mrs. Whipple’s nature, according to the narrator, to be the eternal optimist, but, most often, this positive take on life is found only ‘‘when the neighbors were in earshot.’’ It becomes quite obvious to the reader as the story progresses that Mrs. Whipple will do almost anything to impress her neighbors. She is a woman for whom life is more dependent on appearances than on food on the table. She would rather starve than be pitied. She would rather lie than give anyone a chance to look down on her.

It is the lies that ultimately confuse her, for she tells them so regularly and in such an exaggerated manner that she begins to believe them herself. So fearful is she of how the neighbors judge her son that when she is in view of her neighbors, she makes grandiose outpourings of her emotions toward her son, He, who is referred to as the ‘‘simple-minded one.’’ Mrs. Whipple does not know for sure how she feels toward her son, and yet she believes she must constantly defend not only him but also her own feelings toward him. She is so uncertain of her feelings that she diminishes her love for her other two children in order to garner enough love for him. She often tells her neighbors that she loves him more than her two other children put together. Behind closed doors, however, she defers to her other children to the detriment of her son, He. She gives her other children the benefit of warm pajamas and extra blankets by taking these things away from He.

While she makes sure that He receives extra portions of food, piling up his dish and relishing in the noises that he makes while eating, she also criticizes him, to herself, about how much he eats. The neighbors may not see that He sleeps at night without any blankets, but they would notice if He were malnourished. So Mrs. Whipple feeds him, and He grows to twice the size of his older brother. The neighbors, hiding their real thoughts of disgrace, also comment on his size, as if that were proof that one day He will grow out of his so-called simple-mindedness: ‘‘He’s not so bad off,’’ they often reassure Mrs. Whipple, ‘‘Look how He grows!’’

The size of He is relevant in this story for other reasons, too. His size represents the dominance he has in Mrs. Whipple’s thoughts. He is the hub of the wheel around which Mrs. Whipple directs the other members of the family, and around which she directs most of her thoughts. To Mrs. Whipple, He is the weakest link in the family. She must make sure that he appears as strong as possible, thus elevating all the other members around him.

It is not only the size but also the strength of her son that makes him a viable participant in this family. For instance, Mrs. Whipple is proud of the way he can climb a tree. He is not only strong, in her mind, he is also fearless. Only when the neighbors suggest that He does not understand the possible consequences of falling out of the tree—and therefore suggest that Mrs. Whipple is not being a good mother for allowing him to climb so high and so freely—does Mrs. Whipple yell at him. Later, out of sight of any of the neighbors, she beats him in the head.

It is in her allowing him to do things that her other children are fearful of doing that one may begin to wonder what lies beneath Mrs. Whipple’s motives. Is she really proud of him for his lack of fear? Or does she not care if He gets hurt because in her mind, he feels no pain? And of course, one would then wonder, why does she choose to believe that He feels no pain? Has she so removed herself from her own emotions that she feels no pain when he is suffering? Or is there an even deeper motive? Despite the fact that the narrator discloses that ‘‘Mrs. Whipple’s life was a torment for fear something might happen to Him,’’ she encourages him to do things that his older brother Adna will not do. If the narrator is reliable, one wonders from where Mrs. Whipple’s fear is coming. If she is not fearful that He will get hurt, then is she merely afraid of what the neighbors would think of her if He should hurt himself? ‘‘It’s the neighbors,’’ Mrs. Whipple tells her husband. ‘‘I can’t afford to let Him do anything for fear they’ll come nosing around about it.’’

Besides climbing the tree, there are two other incidents in which Mrs. Whipple allows He to put himself in the midst of danger. First there is the snatching of the piglet. Adna knows that this particular sow is meaner ‘‘than a Jersey cow’’ and would rip his ‘‘insides out all over the pen.’’ So Adna refuses to capture the piglet, and Mrs. Whipple calls him ‘‘old fraidy.’’ At this point, Mrs. Whipple belittles Adna further by claiming that He is not scared of the old sow, and she laughs at the thought of it ‘‘as though it was all a good joke.’’ She then pushes He toward the pen, knowing that He will do anything that she tells him to do. He trusts...

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