Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As might be expected in a story of suspense in which even the protagonist is undefined except in the most general terms, theme is not prominent in this tale. Particularly noteworthy is the author’s control over the reader’s attention and the effective expression of psychological nuances in an emotionally packed situation.

The indeterminate ending creates a real cliff-hanger, leaving to the imagination of the reader what the outcome will be. Logic and a realistic mode suggest tragedy; it seems unlikely that the protagonist is going to be rescued. Because those on the ground really know nothing of the actual plight of the climber and may assume, if they think at all, that he can return from the top by the stairway, their return is improbable.

One significant meaning that emerges from the story is that human beings are often, especially at this age, at the mercy of their impulses, with precious little attention to possible consequences. Many an uneasy parent will recognize this volatile combination of peer pressure, ego sensitivity, and inexperience that often leads to tragedy. The unique character of this exploit, different from usual misdemeanors of urban young people, lends a certain irony to the situation. Unlike pure pleasure-seekers, this young man assumes a pseudoheroic task that derives from a more archaic notion of valor: to climb the mountain and plant his lady’s banner at the peak. Even the girl who starts the mean goading of the protagonist succumbs to the ancient meaning of chivalric action when she offers her handkerchief.

The story also emphasizes the existential isolation of each person in his or her private perception of experience. The climber has every reason to believe that no one knows the extremity of his distress. He is cut off both literally and spiritually from communication with his peers or anyone who might help or even sympathize with his predicament. If he lives through this experience, he will have learned a sobering truth about human destiny: The most stressful experiences of life are often the most solitary, and certainly every person does his or her own dying utterly alone.