Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

James Purdy is probably the best twentieth century American fiction writer of limited reputation. Despite numerous novels and short stories of impeccable artistry, he has not received the acclaim that he deserves, at least partly because he is gay and African American, but also because of the unusual nature of his fiction, which is difficult to categorize. Color of Darkness is the first collection of that unusual fiction published in the United States, in 1957. The novella Sixty-three: Dream Palace and most of the stories in the collection were published previously in England.

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Most fundamental to Purdy’s writing is his obsession with and genius for portraying the evil inherent in human relationships, the incredible cruelty with which human beings often treat each other. This dark vision, akin to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville in its psychological realism but also with elements of the gothic reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Purdy admires, appears in incipient but often powerful form in Color of Darkness.

The title story, “Color of Darkness,” astutely presents how emotional coldness, similar to the heart of stone that will not burn in Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand” (1850), can ruin a child. The father in “Color of Darkness” has no emotional tie to his son, Baxter, who is a virtual stranger. The son’s evil traits (defiance, obscenity, violence) derive directly from his father’s own inability to be a loving parent to his child. This inability to parent is effectively symbolized by Baxter’s finding and fighting over his father’s discarded wedding ring, the emblem of the marriage that should have provided Baxter with a two-parent family but which did not because of his parents’ divorce.

This same theme of intrafamily cruelty and evil is also presented in “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?,” probably one of the most perfect short stories ever written. Baxter’s mother, Ethel, is even more uncaring than the distant father in “Color of Darkness.” Because she has lost her husband to death, and because she hates her child for his love for the dead husband—symbolized by the photographs—she tries to force the child to burn the photographs and thereby destroy the last thing that gives the boy a sense of love, of humanness. She verbally abuses him so that others can hear her do so, thereby destroying another level of his humanity, his sense of self-worth. She fails to properly mother in other ways, including by refusing to let Baxter touch her or to call her Mama. Thus, the child develops a lack of love for her, which increases her jealousy of his love of the photographs.

The story brilliantly depicts how a troubled, selfish, uncaring parent can reduce a child into a subhuman animal, epitomized by the child clutching the photographs and hissing at his mother while “thick black strings” spew from his mouth. At a time of increasingly numerous single-parent families, Purdy sounded the alarm and presented the most fundamental causes of divorce and emotional and physical neglect in these two stories, written in the 1950’s.

Probably most emotionally powerful and tragic of all in Color of Darkness is the intrafamily cruelty in Sixty-three: Dream Palace. With the rundown slum residence as the ironic dream palace, where Fenton Riddleway conjures up his desperate plan to marry the rich widow and live as a dandy in her mansion (the imagined dream palace), Purdy develops Fenton’s psychological dilemma in a manner worthy of the very best American writers. Because he is religious, Fenton’s sickly little brother, Claire, will not stoop to the rottenness of participating in or benefiting from Fenton’s selling of himself. Although he is not religious, Fenton knows that he will have no psychological peace if he leaves his sick younger brother in the slum house, infested with bugs and lacking food. Thus, Fenton’s dream drives him to kill Claire, realizing later that he cannot live a life of degeneracy, as he had planned, and that Claire was all that really mattered to him. As in all great tragedy, this realization comes too late. Thus, the ultimate intrafamily evil, the killing of a sibling by another sibling, with its biblical overtones, is the powerful conclusion to Purdy’s depiction of human evil.

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