Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In simple and straightforward language, such as his characters would use in their thought and conversation, Arna Bontemps tells a deceptively unassuming story about the last day in the life of an elderly couple. Only the literary and quasi-philosophical word “tragedy” in the title signals an alert reader that something portentous might be coming. That word places the story’s protagonist in the company of characters such as Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, William Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, men who in old age take fatal action with more or less awareness of what they are doing, and more or less wisdom about the inevitability of human suffering.

Within his first few sentences, however, Bontemps cues the reader not only to his characters’ age and health, but also to their social status, more like a Loman than like a king or conquering general. With a few early details and images, the author foreshadows their impending deaths: Jeff Patton is turning away from vanities, his coat is moth-eaten, his mouth twists “into a hideous toothless grimace” like a skull, his wife’s voice comes like an echo, and she has a “wasted, dead-leaf appearance.” Conversation, like life for this couple, is sparse, and therefore dialogue is used sparingly in the telling of their story, but when it comes, with a touch of the African American dialect of the Delta, the reader hears the direct, plain emotions of affection and fear that permeate...

(The entire section is 483 words.)