Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Treated from various viewpoints is the primitive ritual of human sacrifice as practiced by these Indians. Reference is made to a now discarded ritual of cannibalism, but the ritual of burying the chief’s servant with him is at the time of the story still practiced, although some of the superstitious feeling for it has disappeared. Where the viewpoint is that of the Indians, the attitude is one of complaining about the inconvenience of such ritual, as if to say, “let’s get on with it before the body becomes too rank.” The chief is much too fat and lazy to lead the hunt as tradition demands he must; the sixty-year-old Herman Basket would much prefer not to be in the position of organizing the expedition; there is even a statement or two blaming blacks for the inconvenience. The Indians never question directly their belief in Happy Hunting Grounds or in the idea that chiefs need a horse, a dog, and a servant to hunt there, yet the implication of their attitude is that of doubt, perhaps disbelief; the ritual is continued because it is a tradition honored by time—thus the many references to past observances.

When the viewpoint is that of the body servant, there is a realistic facing of the inevitable while regretting and trying to postpone if not prevent it. No longer is there speculation on customs or inconveniences: The vital matter of life and death dominates every concern, a matter that has been treated by Basket and Berry somewhat flippantly at times, casually or realistically at others. The tone, when the focus is on the slave is always deadly serious.