The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

by Katherine Anne Porter
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Pick two short stories by Katherine Anne Porter. Into which type of comedy do these stories fall (infernal, purgatorial, or paradisal), and what kind of insight do they provide?

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Porter's story "Noon Wine" is an example of "infernal" comedy, although the main character, Mr. Thompson, does not survive. The story is concerned with the possibility of goodness, and the Thompson's apparent good luck in hiring Mr. Helton, who makes their farm prosper, would seem to suggest that "goodness," at least in terms of economic prosperity, is possible. But it becomes clear that something is not "right" about Mr. Helton. He is, in fact, an escaped lunatic, and Mr. Thompson's decision to kill Mr. Hatch, a stranger who comes to bring Helton back to the asylum, is based in part on loyalty to his employee, and his need to assert the "goodness" of life on his farm. In fact, however, Thompson spends the rest of his life trying to convince others and himself that he is not a murderer. The truth of his life on the farm (and of his family) is that they have all been implicated in murder. If you understand "infernal" comedy as describing a world that is fundamentally evil and that can only be managed with divine aid, then, in Porter's story Helton, who has a bit of the fairy tale about him in the magical way he is able to right the farm, becomes the divine aid that helps Thompson overcome his own sloth. But, in a particularly infernal twist, that aid itself is a source of evil that ultimately leads to Thompson's suicide.

Another Porter story, "the Grave," can be thought of as purgatorial. In the story, Miranda and Paul find "treasures" in two open graves: a dove, symbolizing peace, and a gold ring, symbolizing marriage and maternity. When Paul shoots and kills a pregnant rabbit, Miranda learns about pregnancy and her own sexuality, and the connection between birth and death. Unlike Thompson in "Noon Wine," who is never able to understand his responsibility for the violence in the story, Miranda achieves a kind of self knowledge.

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