Peter Taylor’s 1949 story about a dysfunctional southern family centers on the patriarch character, Old Ben Brantley. Taylor juxtaposes the domineering father to the subjugated children, stressing the injury that psychological cruelty can inflict even in the absence of physical abuse. Although the father is elderly and nearly blind, seemingly frail, he remains invested in his own superiority and knows full well his capacity to hurt his five children, among whom he plays favorites. Yet Taylor makes us attend to the sufferings the father had, in his time, endured as well. The action is set in Old Ben’s Nashville home, when his children visit on his birthday. The title references an area on the side of the house: specifically, his deceased wife’s pretentious name for it. Ben overhears the children talking on that particular day, as he always did, from his study just above it.
The story is more psychology than action, as Ben’s memories and ruminations about his family occupy much of the text. It is narrated in third person, but Ben’s thoughts are often in first person. “What would old age be without children? Desolation! Desolation!” he reflects. While he believes that one son, Clifford, especially gives him hope and comfort, he cannot resist criticizing him. At first it seems Clifford is fed up with his father’s current petulance, but then he loses control and launches into a tirade. Denying that his concern is senility, he also expresses his frustration at never satisfying his father.
I didn’t say getting childish, Papa. When ever in your life have you been anything but that? . . . It’s your children that have got old, and you have stayed young—and not in any good sense, Papa, only in a bad one.
This outburst plunges Old Ben into a reverie, dredging up his painful memories of beatings he endured at his own father’s hands. Proud that he has never taken a hand to his children, considering punishment and restraint to be only physical, he feels they are ingrates, screaming, “I’ve a right to some gratitude!” In these moments, waiting for his apparently alarmed children to come to him, he has a revelation.
[H]e realized, or perhaps recalled, that he had tortured or plagued them in all the ways that his resentment of their very good fortune had taught him to do.
As this small amount of action, filled with introspection, progresses, Old Ben is alone in the fading light as the dinner hour draws near. Is Ben truly only childish and bad? While he ultimately physically lets out his frustration, using his father’s old cane that he had been beaten with, he remains in the same setting. The space of his study, located in an area where he could always monitor his children’s coming and goings, serves not only as his private domain for surveillance, but as a space of confinement.
Old Ben’s ruminations extend back to an idealistic dream time, when his father’s punishment made him long for a country that would be entirely different: “where there would be . . . no houses that resembled this one; and most of all, where there would be no children and no fathers.” Although his wife had named it porte-cochére, his own pretensions at building it and making a better house than his father had stand for his hubris in trying to exert control.