Very little happens by way of action in “Cheap in August”: A woman has a brief affair with a fat, old, and lonely man. However, the texture of a human life is revealed in all of its complexities, of fear and loneliness, of courage and compassion, of truth and beauty. It is the subtext of the tale that reveals its essential truth—that connection with others is what gives life whatever meaning it possesses.
In his introduction to his Collected Stories (1972), Graham Greene explains that the notion for the story came to him in Kingston, Jamaica, in August of 1963. He included it in his collection entitled May We Borrow Your Husband? and Other Comedies of the Sexual Life (1967): “I sat over my red snapper and tomatoes watching the monstrous Bermuda shorts worn by fat parties from St. Louis, and wondered, as my character did, what possible pick-up [sic] were possible in this out-of-season hotel.” Mary Watson’s emotion of tenderness for the gross old man who picks her up fulfills her need for human connection, as she does his. Felt emotion is infinitely more conducive to meaning than action described or spoken dialogue. Perhaps the ultimate meaning of the story can be discovered in the word “cheap,” which etymologically once meant “trade” or “bargain.” Mary Watson and Henry Hickslaughter do strike a bargain, one that confirms their humanity as it staves off, for a brief moment, the certainty of death. The pun on the surname of Henry Hickslaughter becomes equally significant.