Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The boy-narrator is a young man growing into the adult world, although he would rather, in a sense, remain a child. This idea is suggested by his wish to stunt his growth by eating a cigar. Although he is thinking in terms of staying small enough to be a jockey, in the larger context of the story it is clear that he is unwilling to face the realities of adulthood. The racetrack, with its magical allure, is a perfect fantasy world for the boy.

The boy’s father, the town lawyer, is something of a disappointment to his son. “He’s all right, but don’t make much money and can’t buy me things, and anyway I’m getting so old now I don’t expect it,” the boy says. In comparison to his friends’ fathers—one is a professional gambler—the narrator’s father seems rather bland, although the boy appreciates his understanding nature. The reader can recognize that the father is, indeed, a good and wise man, but the narrator, at this age, prefers Jerry Tillford. In fact, he substitutes Jerry for his father on the day of the race. Thus, his shock and his disappointment at Jerry’s transgressions are profound: They are a betrayal of the highest order.

The boy’s horror takes on an even greater significance when the reader reconsiders the boy’s attitude toward horses. As an adolescent, unable to sort out his powerfully confused feelings, the boy has sublimated his sexual urges into the beauty and excitement of racing. Sunstreak is described as a girl whom the boy wants to kiss. The ache, the pain he feels at the horse’s running is also vaguely sexual but made acceptable and understandable to the boy because it is pictured in the terms of his childhood world. When Jerry bridges the gap between the spiritual appreciation of the horse and the sexual lust for the woman, he is unknowingly forcing the boy to face the truth about his own feelings and needs. Because the boy has vested Jerry with the role of father, Jerry’s act precipitates a distinctly Oedipal crisis. The boy at first wants to kill his “father,” whose overt sexual needs reflect the boy’s hidden, confused ones. Thereafter, the world is no longer simple; there are no easy, clean answers.