Study Guide

Noon Wine

by Katherine Anne Porter

Noon Wine Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One day in 1896, Mr. Olaf Eric Helton appears on Mr. Royal Earle Thompson’s dairy farm in the southern part of Texas. Helton, who last worked in the wheat fields of North Dakota, asks for a job. Thompson decides to hire Helton for seven dollars a month, even though he is “practically” the first Swede he has ever seen.

Thompson takes advantage of his new status by going into town for groceries and a few drinks. Mrs. Ellen Thompson, his wife, in perennial ill health, is drawn out of the house by the tune that Helton is playing on a harmonica. She assumes that the new hired man is worthless, as is so often the case, and she is surprised to see that all the work has been efficiently done. Her husband, on his return, is also impressed with the work of the new employee. The only things that bother them about Helton are that he will not talk or eat enough, but his industry more than makes up for his faults.

Mr. Thompson particularly learns to enjoy the luxury of having Helton around to do the work that is below an employer’s level. There are only limited fields of activity with which a boss ought to concern himself, according to Thompson. Most of the work on a dairy farm is fit for women or hired help. It would not look right, for example, for a man to be seen slopping hogs. He worries about his dignity and reputation, and, now that he has competent help, he can concentrate on manly work.

As a young man, Thompson had fallen in love with Ellen’s charms, and, though they have disappeared over the years, he has learned to appreciate her. He accepts the burden of her illness, and, in fact, is proud of himself for doing so. Before the arrival of Helton, however, he had been resigned to failure. The miserable condition of the farm testified to this resignation. Helton changes things, however, and, as the years pass, the farm begins to prosper.

Mrs. Thompson learns to accept Helton, even if he is different. She invites him to go to church with the family once, and she is alarmed at the rejection of the Christian invitation and his accompanying anger. On another occasion, she is upset when she discovers him shaking the boys, Arthur and Herbert, ferociously, but silently, for playing with his harmonicas. They are the only things, besides his...

(The entire section is 935 words.)

Noon Wine Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Noon Wine is the second of a trilogy of short novels, as Porter preferred to call them (instead of novelettes or novellas, as many critics and commentators have insisted on designating those pieces of her fiction that are longer than a short story but shorter than a conventional novel). Noon Wine appeared in book form with Pale Horse, Pale Rider, from which the book took its title, and Old Mortality. In an essay, “’Noon Wine’: The Sources,” published in her Collected Essays in 1970, Porter explained how she shaped a work of fiction out of her memories of disparate incidents, persons, and impressions.

The setting of this short novel is a small farm in south Texas; it begins in 1896 and moves swiftly to 1905. As befits the concentrated form of a short novel, there are only three major characters in Noon Wine: Royal Earl Thompson, a proud and slothful man; Ellie, his weak-eyed, ailing wife; and Olaf Helton, a taciturn Swede from North Dakota, who appears one day in search of a job as a hired hand and who, through untiring industry, transforms the farm from a run-down, subsistence-level operation into a profitable concern.

Helton does not endear himself to the family, however, which includes two small boys, Arthur and Herbert, whose growth over the next nine years marks the passage of time. One day there arrives the last person to take a prominent part in the story, Homer T. Hatch, to...

(The entire section is 534 words.)