Style and Technique

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The most important stylistic feature of “A Christmas Memory” is the sense of immediacy that Capote creates by writing in the present tense. Although he writes as an adult remembering a childhood experience at least twenty years earlier, he avoids the feeling of distance that narrating a memoir in the past tense would create or the impersonal objectivity that a third-person narrator might lend. Anxious to create a strong emotional context, he favors the immediacy of the present tense, almost as if he would prefer the memoir to be a play. Indeed, in 1966 the story was adapted for television, with Capote reading the story as a voice-over narrator.

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The story begins by asking readers to become an audience, almost as if they were sitting in a theater: “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.” Before the first paragraph ends, the story slips into the present tense, thereby creating a dramatic quality: “Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar. A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window.”

This immediate dramatic quality is maintained throughout the story. At times it describes past events that are important to the moment—“Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest”—but it is always quick to return the reader’s attention to the dramatic present—“at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee.” At times, Capote even includes what might be seen as stage directions—“Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scold. Listen to what they have to say.” At other times, he writes what sounds like directions in a film script: “Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass” or “Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.”

The story ends with “This is our last Christmas together. Life separates us,” using “is” instead of “was.” Even as Capote recalls the passage of time that eventually led to the death of his cousin, he holds on to the present tense as long as he can—“a morning arrives in November, a leafless, birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: ’Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather!’” In the last words of the story, Buddy is an adult again, but he still remembers in the present tense: “That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

Historical Context

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Growing up in the Depression
Capote's "A Christmas Memory" takes place in the South during the Depression. Though a larger historical framework is not apparent in the story, the traditions of the era are well represented by Buddy's adventures with his cousin. Living in a house with many relatives was common in times of great poverty, and Buddy was most likely there because his parents' economic situation prevented them from providing him with a stable life. In addition, the activities he pursues with his cousin—baking fruitcakes, cutting down a tree in the woods, making homemade decorations and Christmas presents together—not only evoke a nostalgia for a simpler time but also represent common amusements in a rural community when money was scarce. One of Buddy's favorite pastimes is going to the movies, which costs only a dime. During the Depression, millions attended the country's elaborate movie palaces every week; it was the cheapest, most common form of entertainment in a world not yet captivated by radio and television. That Buddy's cousin has never been to a movie herself may not seem so strange when one considers that she grew up in an era before the film industry had captured the public's attention.

An Intolerant Era
Less apparent in the writing of "A Christmas Memory" are the cultural attitudes that fostered what Thomas Dukes has called ''the quintessential homosexual writing style1' of the 1950s. In an era of considerable sexual repression, addressing homosexual themes overtly in literature was uncommon. Instead, authors, especially Capote, created situations in a type of ''code'' that were often interpreted in a homosexual context. One aspect of this ''code'' in Capote's story is the sensitivity of the central male character, particularly his preference for emphasizing his feelings and emotions over action. Another aspect of this "code" is the emphasis on female characters and domestic concerns. Note also the joke that Mr. Haha Jones makes when he asks Buddy and his cousin, ''Which of you is a drinking man?'' That Haha finds this funny suggests that he equates Buddy's gender identity more with his female friend rather than with his status as a young male. Outside of his writing, Capote defined himself as homosexual in the often homophobic culture of the 1950s and 1960s through the way in which he chose to be photographed and the effeminate manner he assumed during television interviews.

Literary Style

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''A Christmas Memory'' is a personal reminiscence which depends on first-person narration and the nostalgia of a rural Southern setting to evoke its mood. Its realism is supported by its straightforward, linear structure, while its use of lyrical language evokes the idea of a mythical past.

Point of View
The story employs a first-person narrator who is called Buddy, though we are also told that this is not his real name, but a name given to him by his friend. By telling us this, the narrator suggests that the story is not his alone, but also belongs to his friend, the other major character in the story. The advantage of the first-person point of view lies in its allowing us to experience the story as Buddy himself did. The description of Mr. Haha is not an objective view; rather it is the view of a seven-year-old boy: "he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn't smile." The italicized words demonstrate the amazement and fear felt by seven-year-old Buddy. Likewise, what the narrator thinks of the others in the household comes through in his references to them. "Other people inhabit the house," and his emotional distance is underscored by his using the generic term "people" and his refusal to give them personalities. His later reference to "those who Know Best" suggests his belief that they really do not know best. The fact that the narrator is an adult while he is telling the story is also significant, because it allows him to put his earlier memories into perspective and to understand events in ways which a seven-year-old boy could not: The adult narrator recognizes that his friend was "still a child." The main disadvantage of first-person narration is its limited ability to portray others. The reader must rely on Buddy's description of the woman, since her thoughts are never shown. Likewise, the reader cannot form valid judgments about the other family members because the point of view does not allow their perspective to be heard.

"A Christmas Memory" is set in the rural South during the early 1930s. This can be deduced from the fact that the story first appeared in 1956, and the narrator tells us it took place during the winter "more than twenty years ago." This places the story during the Great Depression, a time of great poverty, which may explain why so many relatives are living in a house together, including a young boy without his parents. In reality, Capote spent several years with relatives while his mother sought work in other parts of the country. Furthermore, placing a nostalgic, "coming-of-age" story during the Christmas season, a time many people remember fondly, further emphasizes the story's goal of evoking a warm, bittersweet reminiscence.

Partly because "A Christmas Memory" is a reminiscence, time is its dominant structural element. There are two time periods in the story: the present, in which the narrator relates the story, and the distant past, when the narrator was a boy. The narrator quickly moves the reader into the distant past by issuing a series of commands: "Imagine a morning in late November...Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house." At the climax of the story, as Buddy and his cousin fly kites on Christmas day, die narrator brings the reader back to the present: "This is our last Christmas together." This sudden shift in time abruptly ends the story's nostalgic mood, and in the several subsequent paragraphs that recount events leading up to the narrator's present life, Capote quickly establishes a tone of bittersweet melancholy. By placing the main action of the story nearly twenty years before, that time is made to seem distant and remote. That Buddy's cousin is no longer living by the end of the story further serves to emphasize the passing of time and the inability for people to return to the past.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Schools and most other public facilities across the South are segregated by race.

1956: The University of Alabama expels its first black student in defiance of a federal court order; Southern congressmen issue a manifesto pledging to use "all lawful means" to defy desegregation.

Today: Schools and public facilities are open to all regardless of race, but economic inequality is still seen by some as a barrier to full integration.

1930s: The first "talkie" was produced in 1928; a few years later all films have sound. Elaborately staged musicals become one of the movie industry's most popular genres.

1956: As a result of the country's rising prosperity following World War II, television is introduced to many homes, providing cheap, nearly endless entertainment. Movie attendance falls by millions, and many theaters close. The industry fights back by developing thousands of drive-in movie theaters.

Today: New forms of mass media include cable television and the Internet.

1930s: At the height of the Depression unemployment is nearly 25%. President Franklin Roosevelt attempts to stimulate economic growth through his New Deal programs.

1956: Post-war prosperity makes the United States a dominant world power. President Eisenhower warns of the "military-industrial complex'' at the heart of the country's economy, but government continues to expand.

1990s: Both Democrats and Republicans proclaim an end to the era of big government, but true economic and social reforms are slow to impact people's lives.

1930s: Fascist dictatorships and militant nationalists gain power in Europe as the Great Depression throws countries into economic and social turmoil.

1956: The fear of communism fuels the Cold War. The arms race escalates, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev tells the U.S. government, ''History is on our side. We will bury you!"

1990s: Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been replaced by democratic-style governments. China, the last significant communist power, enacts many capitalist reforms.

Media Adaptations

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''A Christmas Memory'' was adapted for television in 1967 with Geraldine Page and Donnie Melvin; Truman Capote was the narrator. It is available on video under such titles as ABC Playhouse 67; A Christmas Memory or Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory"; the latter version was also released by Allied Artists in 1969 as part of Truman Capote's Trilogy.

The story has been adapted as part of Short Story Anthology, a sixteen-part series available from Children's Television International; "A Christmas Memory" comprises episodes 11 and 12 of the series.

An audio adaptation of the story read by Capote is available from Knopf Book & Cassette Classics; a version read by Celeste Holm which includes "The Thanksgiving Visitor" is available from Random House Audiobooks.

Holiday Memories is a musical stageplay adaptation by Malcolm Ruhl and Russell Vandenbroucke combining both "A Christmas Memory" and "The Thanksgiving Visitor"; it was published by Berwyn Press in 1991.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Hyman, Stanley Edgar "Fruitcake at Tiffany's," in his Standards A Chronicle of Books for Our Time, Horizon Press, 1966.

McKenzie, Nancy. A review of ''A Christmas Memory," in The New York Times, November 17, 1966.

Newquist, Roy. An interview with Truman Capote in Counterpoint, RandMcNally, 1964.

A review of "A Christmas Memory," in Harper's Magazine, Vol 233, December, 1966, p 132.

Further Reading
Clarke, Gerald Capote: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1988. A very readable and thorough biography of Capote While It is not an authorized biography, Capote cooperated with Clarke up until his death.

Inge, M Thomas Truman Capote: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi, 1987. A compilation of interviews with Truman Capote spanning 1948 to 1980 Provides insight into what Capote thought about the craft of writing and his childhood in the South

Moates, Marianne M ''Truman Capote's Southern Years,'' in her Bridge of Childhood, Holt, 1989, 240 p. Moates provides background on Capote's childhood and family, including the cousin he fictionalized in "A Christmas Memory."


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Truman Capote. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Brinnin, John Malcolm. Truman Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy. Rev. ed. New York: Delacorte Press, 1986.

Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Dunphy, Jack.“Dear Genius”: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Plimpton, George. Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Rudisill, Marie. The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House, 2000.

Windham, Donald. Lost Friendships: A Memoir of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Others. New York: William Morrow, 1987.

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Critical Essays