While Katherine Anne Porter's short story Theft is, on the surface, about a young, economically-destitute woman's efforts to reconstruct a series of encounters for the purpose of finding her lost purse, it becomes apparent in the tale's final denouement that the search for the purse, and the search's resolution, involve a much deeper symbolic meaning. Every one of the characters in Porter's story is lonely and destitute. Money is a recurring theme, as is the materialism that has degraded human relationships by compelling irresponsible choices. The woman who serves as Porter's protagonist, during the course of her journey, visits "Bill" at his apartment, during which the issue of money again comes between people, and during which the narrator emphasizes again the failures of human relationships and the role of materialism in casting a thin veneer over the emptiness of these lives. Note, for example, the following passage in which Bill vents to the woman about his ex-wife while smoothly transitioning to a discussion of his new rug:
"I send her ten dollars every week of my unhappy life, and I don't really have to. She threatens to jail me if I don't, but she can't do it. God, let her try it after the way she treated me! She's no right to alimony, and she knows it. But I send it because I can't bear to see anybody suffer. And I'm way behind on the piano and the victrola, both — " "Well, this is a pretty rug, anyhow," she said. Bill stared at it and blew his nose. "I got it at Ricci's for ninety-five dollars," he said.
The woman's gold purse is the most important use of symbolism in the story. As she begins to realize that the purse must have been stolen by the building's female janitor, who entered the woman's apartment without permission, the protagonist reflects on the significance of the theft with respect to her values as an individual:
"She remembered how she had never locked a door in her life, on some principle of rejection in her that made her uncomfortable in the ownership of things, and her paradoxical boast before the warnings of her friends, that she had never lost a penny by theft; and she had been pleased with the bleak humility of this concrete example designed to illustrate and justify a certain fixed, otherwise baseless and general faith which ordered the movements of her life without regard to her will in the matter. In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inescapable: the long patient suffering of dying friendships and the dark inexplicable death of love — all that she had had, and all that she had missed, were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses."
This lengthy passage from Porter's story is included here to illustrate the way in which the author uses symbolism to convey emotion and meaning. The woman values the purse not for its monetary value, but for its emotional importance. The purse had been a birthday present, seemingly from her former lover -- every character save the unseen teenage niece for whom the janitor stole the purse has been rejected by a lover/spouse -- and its theft symbolizes for the woman the loss of a connection to another human being, presumably the author of the forlorn letter she extracts from it, reads and shreds. And, the purse's theft, as will be illuminated upon the stolen item's return by the janitor, comes to symbolize the formalization of the end of the woman's life with regard to personal connections. The angry, awkward exchange near the story's end between the woman and the female janitor exposes the purse's symbolic value. With the purse, the woman remains fixated on this possession; without it, she is reminded that her best days are behind her. When the janitor angrily declares, "I don't want it [the purse] either now. My niece is young and pretty, she don't need fixin' up to be pretty, she's young and pretty anyhow! I guess you need it worse than she does," the woman is finally confronted with the superficiality of her existence. Just as Bill's rug symbolizes the use of material possessions to substitute for human relationships, so does the purse serve as the woman's sole source of emotional comfort. It is both her strength and her weakness.
Now, all of the above is entirely subjective. The student is requesting assistance in beginning a research paper on the use of symbolism in Theft. Both the material items, the purse and the rug, are important symbols. The story is titled "Theft," however, for a reason: the act of being victimized has exposed the emotional emptiness of the woman's existence. The loss of the purse could serve as an emotional catharsis if it helps the woman to definitively break from an unhappy past. Its loss could also, however, presage her entry into another phase of her existence. In the end, she reflects on her encounter with the janitor: "I was right not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing." Loneliness and despair are the common threads of Porter's story, and nobody is really helped by the inanimate objects they prize so dearly. The woman recovers her purse, but, in the process, realizes that her victory is meaningless.
Hopefully, the essays linked below will help in preparing a research paper on Porter's short story.