Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Mother’s Tale” is open to a variety of interpretations. The manner in which cattle are herded into railway cars and taken to a destination of death and horror recalls the Holocaust, when thousands of human beings were herded in the same way to destruction. Just as many refuse to face the reality of such horror, the majority of the herd cannot face the incontrovertible truth of experience.

The tale also has religious implications. The capitalized Man with the Hammer is both personified human evil and the merciless God of destruction, the destructive force that murders the perishable body of everyone. The One Who Came Back, however, is an affirmation of Ernest Hemingway’s famous statement in The Old Man and the Sea (1952) that “man can be destroyed but not defeated.” There are several hints that this battered creature is Christlike—his arrival from the East, his stigmatic hooves, his suffering for his fellow creatures—but his newly acquired knowledge betrays only satanic hatred: Kill man, kill your offspring, bear no more children. Although humans may deserve such condemnation, James Agee’s point seems clear: Violence breeds only further violence. The One Who Came Back is only a sad, beaten animal that has failed to learn through suffering, to become truly Christlike, to become Everyman—or, in his case, Everycow.