Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

If sadness is the overarching tone of “Cheap in August,” then the farcical coming together of two seemingly mismatched people undercuts the sadness to give the tale its bittersweet quality. What the story does best, by means of subtle authorial suggestions, is to reveal the reality of pain behind a comic facade. That Greene has included the story in his collection of comedies dealing with sexual experience indicates that the grotesqueness of an old man still yearning for sex and the romantic sentimentalism of a woman seeking confirmation of her attractiveness are to be seen as one more turn in the comic ronde that life presents to the careful onlooker. The presence of the narrator is felt strongly in the story’s subtext as he directs his reader to an awareness of how simple emotion can overwhelm one and dignify life. The story achieves, as a result, a tragicomic resonance that links it to the stories and dramas of Anton Chekhov. What the reader feels as he reads through the events of the narrative is what William Wordsworth called “the still, sad music of humanity.”

Mary and Hickslaughter’s affair is ultimately life enhancing as it comments on the temporality of life through the spiritual quality of a compassionate experience; it provides the reader with an insight into what it means to verify one’s humanity through the sexual act.