Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Unlike the narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s poem “Safe in Shade,” who takes from an apparently identical communion with his grandfather a memory of safety and of “Truth—oh, unambiguous,” the narrator of “When the Light Gets Green” carries with him a sense of disillusionment and, perhaps unconsciously, offers the reader a powerful argument against the ability of humanity to control its present environment, past, or future.

The remainders of humankind’s mortality and of the limits of authority in the early parts of the story suggest how powerless humanity is to control or to keep its present, but the scene under the cedar tree and what follows it focuses this theme and adds the past and future to the story’s purview. Mr. Barden’s obsession with history has a double significance. On one hand, his subjects are all illustrative of battles won or lost: Flodden Field, where James IV of Scotland was slain on the field, the sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated Russian campaign. On the other hand, Mr. Barden attempts to rewrite his own history and that of the South with hypotheses modeled on his readings, asserting, for example, that “if they had done what Forrest wanted and cleaned the country ahead of the Yankees, like the Russians beat Napoleon, they’d whipped the Yankees sure.”

Unlike history, Mr. Barden “never read poetry, he just said what he already knew,” and what he...

(The entire section is 484 words.)