Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Bowles repeatedly uses physical details and descriptions of settings to suggest personality traits and to flesh out themes. At the opening of the story, for example, she pays close attention to the geometry of the clay pit in which Mary plays. From the pit, Mary can see the “curved” highway, the steep “angle” of the hill in which the pit is dug, the “square” house above, whose steps lead to the curb, “dividing the steep lawn in two.” The geometrical imagery describes the way Mary construes her surroundings to suit her needs—as tidy and regular. She has no patience with having to confront the geometry of the hill on its own terms; she finds it “tedious” to have to climb up a set of steep steps to follow Franklin. Once inside Franklin’s house, she becomes anxious because the spaces there are cramped and dark, intimidating her so that she “looked around frantically for a wider artery.”
A common feature of all of Bowles’s writing is an arch, understated humor. That element is apparent here in her choice of a military make-believe world for Mary; such a fascination seems somewhat unusual for a young girl. The subtlety of Bowles’s humor appears in such things as the description of the way that Mary walks home from her clay pit in her dirty coat: “She walked along slowly, scuffing her heels, her face wearing the expression of a person surfeited with food.” Bowles does not say that Mary is pouting, but it is apparent from this sentence that that is what she is doing. The playground Mary dislikes intensely is called the Kinsey Memorial Grounds—the somber touch in the name supports humorously Mary’s perception that it describes a place where the fantasy that sustains her is likely to be buried under the squealing of children who play with little apparent design or imagination.
If Bowles’s humor is lightly sketched, so, too, is her theme. It finds its focus not in any token heavily laden with symbolism, but in a simple stick of green candy, an unlikely centerpiece of a rite of passage, but one that is in keeping with the changes Mary experiences.