Why Can't They Tell You Why? Analysis

James Purdy

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Purdy’s work draws much of its impact through understatement and implication. He presents little visual description but conveys vivid images through his use of metaphor. Although Ethel never actually strikes Paul in the story, its details strongly suggest that she has often locked him in the basement for punishment and that she has been physically abusive. When Ethel jerks Paul toward her by his pajamas, he pleads for her not to hurt him. She pulls his hair, and Paul winces when she raises her hand. He is apprehensive at the thought of being punished, but being sent to the basement is even more terrifying to him. That Paul is neglected is reflected in his unmended nightshirt and the strange excitement that he feels when he hears Ethel talk about him on the phone.

Paul is afraid of his mother, yet each character perceives the other as distant and even nonhuman. To Paul, Ethel is a monster; to Ethel, Paul is an animal and a burden. Purdy often describes Paul in terms of sick, starving, scared animals. Paul debases himself by pathetically petting the fur on his mother’s slippers to persuade her to let him keep the photos. At the end of the story, when he goes completely mad, Paul hisses like a trapped animal. There is, Purdy tells the reader, no chance of bringing him back.

Ethel is described in equally unattractive images, often demoniac, involving fire and smoke. When she takes some of the photos from him, she tells him that she will burn...

(The entire section is 560 words.)