Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Kill Day on the Government Wharf” is the story of a woman’s awakening to her most profound and elemental desires and needs. When the story opens, she tells her husband how increasingly vital and independent she feels since they have left the comforts of the city for a much more strenuous life on the remote island. Tom notices many positive changes in her but suggests that her notions of rustic living are sentimental and would not withstand the reality of prolonged experience. She too wonders if this is not true.

After Tom leaves to go fishing, the wife begins a day of chores and activities, which seem to confirm her feelings that she is growing more independent as a result of the challenges of the island environment. Remote from familiar amenities, she finally has the opportunity and need to acquire knowledge and develop skills that city living renders unnecessary. She is becoming increasingly self-reliant, closer to her husband in this regard because he grew up in such an environment.

When she takes her son to watch the activity on the wharf, she is initially queasy and disoriented, but soon she finds herself watching with deep interest and something more. The ritual of killing, cleaning, packing, and storing the fish has a timeless reality and significance that one cannot experience in the world of supermarkets and packaged meals. The wife is surprised by how profoundly satisfying she finds the scene.

When the young man appears at her door, he asks to use the telephone. The telephone is a modern convenience, and its ready availability and usefulness would seem to support Tom’s argument in favor of city life and modernity. However, when she responds to the young man’s masculinity, marks herself with his blood, and is in turn cleansed with his saliva, she seems to assert a complete acceptance of the ritual she has just witnessed and the world that it represents. In other words, the act signals her recognition and acceptance of her own deepest instincts to live much closer to the rhythms of nature than city life allows. She has made a profoundly significant choice; and the conclusion, with its emphasis on love, fulfillment, and peace indicates that the consequences of that choice will be positive for her and her family.