Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Theft,” despite its brevity, contains several interlocking themes that lie at the core of Katherine Anne Porter’s work. Foremost is the theme of alienation that permeates the story. Porter creates a modern alienated wasteland, populated by characters suffering from empty human relationships. None of the individuals portrayed connects emotionally to another. Of the five marriages or love affairs to which the story alludes, for example, none is successful.

Paralleling the theme of alienation is that of rejection. The woman, nameless because she has lost her identity, experiences rejection of one sort or another from all the characters. She rejects Camilo as unworthy of her and, in turn, is rejected by Roger, possibly a current lover, who chooses reconciliation with his wife. When she arrives at her apartment building, Bill rejects her contributions to his script by refusing to pay her the promised money. Rereading the letter from a lover who blames her for the deterioration of their relationship, she symbolically rejects him by destroying the letter. Her final rejection involves the loss of the purse and the janitor’s unwillingness to take it once it is freely given.

Porter underlines the themes of alienation and rejection with another one involving loss—the loss of the stolen purse and the woman’s feelings regarding it. On one level, the purse signifies a material possession that she is willing to give up; on another, deeper level, it is not just her possession, but an extension of her personality. It probably was given to her by Eddie and symbolizes not only their love and life together, but also her youth. Now older, she is forced to face this painful reality when the janitor throws the purse back and taunts her about no longer being young, thereby precipitating her spiritual isolation. Her latent feelings of isolation, loss, and rejection merge by story’s end. She is left with an empty purse and cold coffee, devoid of love.