Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Stuart’s paean to rural courage and human love extols the somewhat opposing virtues of self-reliance and family unity. The individual members of the family, from the resourceful mother to the newborn child, can survive only by uniting their efforts against the forces that threaten them, which in this story take the form of a violent winter and the sickness that incapacitates the father. The central character, the ten-year-old son, does whatever is required of him, and he does it without complaint or opposition of any kind. His concerns center on the well-being of his parents, the illness of his father, and the possible threat to his mother’s health through overwork as she makes the baskets that temporarily earn the living for all of them. So, too, does his mother focus her thoughts on the survival of her husband and children, the good of the whole, paying as little attention as does her son to her own comfort and convenience. Only by striving to ensure the survival of the whole family can the members do their utmost to provide for their own continuance, though this is not the level on which the family lives its life during this time of trial.

Their efforts are concerted and expended through an unstated love of one another, a love that has existed before the opening of the story and one that will continue, the ending reassures the reader, throughout the life of each family member. Few short stories in American literature reverberate with such a positive view of human ties and affection, and few celebrate quite so wholeheartedly what have come to be considered traditional American values.

Above all, this tale of a poor farming family expresses a deep optimism about the possibilities of life, the peace and solace to be found in fortitude, and the benefits of a cheerful stoicism. One should take life as it comes, the story teaches, and do the best one can with what one has. Love one another and everything will be all right.