Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The theme of “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” emerges through retrospection: McRae’s knowledge is in the past tense, signaling several ends—his life, of course, but also his self-delusion that now that he is free from prison with a few thousand dollars in his pocket from his father’s life insurance, his life will take on a more meaningful direction. Driving his Charger across the blankness of the West, he thinks of himself as free, strong, and seasoned by his prison experience. His chance encounter with the strange young woman who calls herself Belle Starr, just as he once named himself “trouble,” shows him he never had control over his fate, that even though he is sorry for everything he had ever done, it doesn’t matter. He is reduced to a mere something by Belle Starr’s random tale about her life and then her fusillade of shots in the desert. The story forces an enlightenment on McRae, who is not a self-reflective character, but who acted on impulse in bashing the officer and learned little from his prison punishment. He still thinks of himself as put on, friendless, not appreciated by his father; but when he witnesses the murder of the cook, he knows that until that moment he didn’t know what the word “trouble” meant. He is forced to learn, and his attempts to outwit Belle Starr by posing as her sidekick, by spinning his tale of prison knowledge and past wrongs against him, and by feigning an eagerness to join her gang, are all pathetic, and he knows it. McRae is thrust into an unwelcome self-awareness, an awareness that is a genuine discovery, if a brief one.