Color of Darkness

by James Purdy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 644

The father in “Color of Darkness” is disconcerted because he cannot remember the color of his wife’s eyes. She left him and their son, Baxter, some years back, and her features have almost entirely slipped from his memory. Eager for his father’s attention, the child stays as close to him as possible and attempts to draw him into conversation. The father’s work requires that he be absent most of the time; even when at home, however, he seems to be psychologically absent. The housekeeper, Mrs. Zilke, is not an adequate replacement for Baxter’s mother; indeed, she is more a mother figure for the father than for his son. To the father, Mrs. Zilke appears as a repository of wisdom, as someone secure in her relationship to the world about her, as someone for whom the world was “round, firm, and perfectly illuminated,” as it was not for him. His world is as amorphous, unstable, and hazy as the pipe smoke that swirls around his head. His inability to remember the color of his wife’s eyes reflects not only his lack of connection with her but also his inability to achieve any vital emotional connection with anybody. He soon realizes that he cannot remember the color of Baxter’s eyes, either.

When Mrs. Zilke tells the father that Baxter is lonely, he confides to Mrs. Zilke that he does not know children, that he does not know what they know, so he does not know how to talk to them. She reassures him that because he is a success at work, it is not necessary that he worry about anything else. In effect, Mrs. Zilke mouths the platitudes of society that endorse the public life at the expense of the private or personal life. As a token of his appreciation of her support, he invites her to join him in a glass of brandy. This symbol of communal understanding fails, however, as she does not drink. When he closes his eyes, he realizes that he does not remember the color of her eyes, either.

One night, the father becomes uncomfortable when he discovers that Baxter sometimes sleeps with a stuffed crocodile; consequently, he readily agrees when Mrs. Zilke suggests that Baxter needs a dog. Baxter does not take to the puppy; he especially does not want to sleep with it, for he needs a father, not a dog. Baxter has become to the father like “a gift someone has awarded him,” rather than as someone intimately connected with his own being. In addition, “as the gift increased in value and liability, his own relation to it was more and more ambiguous and obscure.”

Baxter tries to find a connection between himself and his father by asking him whether he had a dog when he was young, but the father’s responses are, as usual, vacuous. In response to his father’s absentmindedness, the boy begins to retreat into himself, declaring that he does not want anything. Noticing that Baxter has something in his mouth, Mrs. Zilke and the father demand to know what it is. For the first time Baxter allows himself to feel resentment toward them, and defiantly lies about the object and refuses to spit it out. When the father touches Baxter in his attempt to remove the object, Baxter declares that he hates him and swears at him. The object the father forces from his son’s mouth turns out to be the wedding ring the father took off his finger the previous night for the first time since his marriage. As they stare at the ring, Baxter sharply kicks his father in the groin, and runs upstairs, calling him an obscenity connected to his conception. The story ends with the father refusing Mrs. Zilke’s offer of help as he writhes on the floor in pain.

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