Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Jones is certainly “taking care” of more than his required load in this life, and there is a heaviness, a sadness, to the story that is expressed appropriately in Williams’s flat, terse prose style. The most noticeable element of “Taking Care,” however, is its structure, eleven separate sections divided by Roman numerals. This numbering divides the sections more completely than simple line breaks or even Arabic numerals might, giving the story a staccato, fragmentary quality. The story’s structure demonstrates that the events of life are unconnected, as people themselves are. (His daughter wandering the beaches of Mexico seems the strongest example of this last idea.) The order of the sections is also choppy, moving abruptly back and forth in time, with no smooth or clear progression or logic. Uniting the disparate sections of the story, bringing them together, is human love in the form of Jones “taking care” of others and his parishioners “taking care” of Jones with their bowls and bottles of food in his refrigerator.

The tone of the story is objective and neutral, as if readers are looking down at its characters and events from a great distance. The point of view in the story reinforces this feeling because Williams tells readers details (such as the daughter’s future breakdown) that Jones himself cannot know. In certain sections (for example, Jones’s sermon), there is a surreal, nightmare quality to the prose, as if characters are walking in a dream.

The intense quality of this prose is heightened in a series of images and metaphors that are charged with meaning. In the opening section, for example, Jones compares himself to an animal in a traveling show who “wears a vital organ outside the skin, awkward and unfortunate, something that shouldn’t be seen, certainly something that shouldn’t be watched working.” It is his heart, readers suspect. He chews his communion bread, “but it lies unconsumed, like a muscle in his mouth.” Earlier he imagines his wife as “a swimmer waiting to get on with the drowning,” and her blood moving as “mysteriously as constellations” of stars. Like Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O’Connor before her, Williams creates a prose of vivid, even frightening texture and intensity, but like them, she also conveys central truths of the human heart.