Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401
“Blackberry Winter” has often been called one of the great stories in American literature. One of the reasons for its staying power is that it combines two of the most familiar themes in fiction: the rite of passage (the coming of age of a male youth) and the mysterious stranger (the encounter with inexplicable evil). The story is a classic initiation story in that it deals with the child’s discovery of the possibility of disruption of his previously secure and predictable life. Blackberry winter is something Seth has never before encountered and thus seems to be a betrayal by nature itself. This atmosphere of betrayal and the irrational is the climate of time that the story reconstructs as remembered by the adult Seth. All the experiences he undergoes during this one day when he was nine are equally incongruous—the city tramp in the country, the flood during summer, the trash under Dellie’s floor, her vicious slap—all are part of a mystery that old Jebb calls the “changes in life.”
The central event that sticks in Seth’s mind is the confrontation between the tramp and his father; the central image is the gob of spit lying between his father’s boots with brass eyelets and leather thongs on one side and the sad and out-of-place broken black shoes of the tramp on the other. The boy follows the tramp all the rest of his life because he comes to an important realization—that the meaning of “a man” is not just that of his proud, gentlemanly father but also that of the mean and bitter human being that the tramp is. It is a recognition that has been prepared for by his sympathetic identification with the poor boy, who wonders if anyone can eat drowned cow, and by his realization, in connection with Dellie’s yard, that underneath the swept-clean exterior of human life lies “mizry”and the possibility of violence born out of frustration, bad luck, and the inevitable.
The proof that Seth (a persona for Warren) has followed the tramp all of his life is not only this story, which communicates a sympathetic understanding of human reality regardless of its frequent irrational viciousness, but perhaps all of Warren’s fiction, for the artist must always follow those who, like the tramp, are victims in some way—of themselves, of society, of nature, of unreasoning reality.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302
Warren's chief theme in this story is that of boyhood initiation into the experience of life's mutability and uncertainty, as well as his discovery—an experience he can barely understand—of the constant threat of change and death which hovers over the human condition. Throughout the story, Warren emphasizes the narrator's discovery of changes in his existence, from the drowned chicks, the flooded creek, and the death of the cow, to Dellie's strange sickness, which Big Jebb explains to the uncomprehending boy as "the change of life and time . . ."
Moreover, Warren's emphasis on the strange recurrence of wintry rain, dampness, and cold weather in June—the "blackberry winter" of the title—suggests the uncertainty and impermanence of spring or any pleasant season. Central to Seth's growing awareness is the presence of the embittered tramp, who enters the ordered world of the narrator's childhood bringing mystery and the hint of menace. With the tramp's final vicious threat to the boy, the menace of some of life's evils—the possibility of violence and death—becomes explicit.
The story's final section, which quickly summarizes the fate of the characters in the succeeding thirty-five years, reveals the mature adult mind of the narrator, and his understanding of the significance of the experiences which had mystified his youthful self. Thus the final section suggests another theme: the contrast between boyish wonder and an adult understanding of life. This final section presents the narrator's chief discovery, or epiphany, about the meaning of his experience, offering one of the story's major insights with its comment about the departing tramp, "But I did follow him, all the years." As Joseph Blotner has commented in his biography, Robert Penn Warren (1997), this concluding sentence suggests that Seth has recognized his own common humanity as being embodied in the embittered and hostile vagabond.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658
Fathers and Sons
Throughout his career, Warren was interested in exploring and writing about the relationship between fathers (and grandfathers) and sons, and in Blackberry Winter the theme takes center stage. In an interview, Warren agrees with his critics who say that the search for the father is a recurrent theme in his work: ‘‘I’ve been told, and I think it’s true, that the ‘true’ father and the ‘false’ father are in practically every story I’ve written.’’ Though Warren goes on to say (rather disingenuously) that he has ‘‘no idea’’ what that means, but readers of Blackberry Winter can hardly fail to notice that the young boy is drawn to two strong and contrasting figures in the father and the tramp.
Surely the tramp embodies the opposite of his father: the tramp is cowardly, weak and squeamish, and perhaps worst of all, ungentlemanly. His choice of the switchblade as a weapon demonstrates his untrustworthiness and cowardice, but the blade itself naturally appeals to the boy. When the tramp is repulsed by the dead chicks, the boy ‘‘who did not mind hog-killing or frog-gigging,’’ suddenly sees them anew and feels ‘‘hollow in the stomach.’’ But it’s the tramp’s swearing and spitting at the boy’s father that makes him at once repulsive and irresistible. The boy follows him because he’s the only one he’s ever seen who has not deferred to his father, and because like all boys he will eventually have to do the same in order to become a man, and he wants to know how.
Seth’s father, on the other hand, is a model of strength, affection, and manly southern virtues. At the creek his father displays both civic leadership among the other men and paternal affection by lifting his son up to his horse and placing a hand on his thigh to steady him. When the father finally encounters the tramp on his property, he knows exactly what to do and exercises restraint when the man accosts him. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the father is undercut somewhat by the older Seth’s epilogue when the narrator reveals that the tramp is the man whose image walked before him ‘‘all these years.’’
Warren’s depiction of the farm in Blackberry Winter is most likely drawn from his own boyhood experiences on his grandfather’s farm in Cerulean, Kentucky. In the narrator’s memory, it is a place of unspoiled innocence—until that cold day in June when the stranger walked up to the house from the path by the woods.
Seth’s boyhood world on the morning of that day is June is a kind of garden of Eden, a ‘‘first paradise,’’ in the language of critic Winston Weathers. The narrator describes how the boy’s understanding of time differs from the adult view: ‘‘. . . and when you are nine years old, what you remember seems forever; for you remember everything and everything is important and stands big and full and fills up Time and is so solid that you can walk around and around it like a tree and look at it.’’
Of course, innocence is a state of being only understood from the perspective of its opposite— experience. In Judeo-Christian terms, the opposite of innocence is sin, and the consequences of the fall include being expelled from the garden of Eden. The older narrator of Blackberry Winter is recalling the day when his paradise was lost, when death (the baby chicks, the dead cow in the creek), the destructive force of nature (the flood), and evil (the snarling, malevolent tramp) entered his world and changed him forever. In the words of critic Charles Bohner, ‘‘In the span of a single morning, the child has experienced his own blackberry winter. He has been thrust suddenly and violently from the warmth of his childish innocence to the chill knowledge of the ‘jags and injustices’ of an adult world.’’