Study Guide

John Ford's "Tis Pity She's a Whore"

by Angela Carter

John Ford's "Tis Pity She's a Whore" Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story imagines what twentieth century film director John Ford, known for his Westerns, would have done if he had made a film adaptation of Jacobean playwright John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1629?-1633).

An unnamed rancher sets up home in a remote region of the American prairie. After bearing two children—a boy named Johnny and a girl named Annie-Belle—his wife dies. The children’s only human contact, apart from their taciturn and overworked father, is the minister of the nearest town, who drives out in a buggy to collect them every Sunday so that they may attend church. Isolated in a seemingly infinite plain, beneath the vast sky whose pressure (the storyteller asserts) crushed their mother to death, Johnny and Annie-Belle enter into an incestuous relationship. Johnny wants to run away to the West, but Annie-Belle is reluctant to desert their father. When the minister’s son—unnamed in the text—begins to court her, she rejects him, but when she becomes pregnant it becomes politic for her to marry.

Following the wedding, the minister’s wife discovers that Annie-Belle is pregnant and is enraged. Annie-Belle initially blames a passing stranger but eventually confesses the truth to her husband. The minister and his wife decide that the couple must go west to avoid the shame of local gossip, but when the couple goes to the nearest railroad station to make their departure, Johnny follows them, determined that if he cannot have Annie-Belle, no one else will. The minister’s son is killed while trying, unsuccessfully, to shield his wife from Johnny’s bullets. Johnny then kills himself.