Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Watch” follows an American literary tradition of describing men who break free of responsibility to taste freedom and act young again. This freedom is poisoned by a sense of loss: The cemeteries are a constant reminder that all one’s neighbors have died. In this story, even the alligators hanging in Buzbee’s camp are reminiscent of a burial ground. Buzbee feels free in the silence of his camp, and the women’s admiring glances make him feel young again, but at night he looks up at the moon through “bare limbs of the swamp-rotted ghost trees, skeleton-white, disease-killed.” His freedom is marred by the feeling of being trapped. In constant danger of being caught, Buzbee discovers that he is not free after all.

Recurrent images of snakes in the story underscore the theme of entrapment. Hollingsworth’s driveway is compared to a snake in the grass, and his porch, too, is black as a snake that has just shed its skin. Jesse is the prey in this case; Hollingsworth’s driveway is the path of least resistance, and the path swallows him up for an entire summer. Afterward Jesse becomes a predator, camping with Hollingsworth in the cool grass the night before they catch Buzbee.

Buzbee’s chickens disappear one by one until he finds a corn snake in the rooster’s cage that is swallowing the rooster—only its thrashing feet are showing. Buzbee kills the snake, but the rooster dies when it is pulled back out. Metaphorically, the scene foreshadows Buzbee’s being caught. Like the rooster, Buzbee is trapped in the woods, an easy target for a mad son with hounds. At the end of the story, Buzbee plans his final escape, sure that this time he will get away completely. This time, however, his only sure escape may lead directly to a nearby cemetery.