The Stories

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

“Color of Darkness.” A young boy named Baxter has a bizarre relationship with his often-absent father. Baxter wants to be close to his father, physically and emotionally, but his father admits that he does not know people, that he cannot even remember the color of his former wife’s eyes or of Baxter’s eyes. The boy accuses his father of always thinking about something else, and his father thinks of his son as an infant brother whom he does not know well.

Baxter’s father, upset to learn that his son sleeps with a toy crocodile, buys him a puppy, but Baxter only likes the dog’s misbehavior, such as when he soils the floor. One day, Baxter and his father argue over something that Baxter has in his mouth. It turns out to be his father’s wedding ring, negligently cast aside. After being forced to spit out the ring, Baxter kicks his father in the groin and calls him a foul name.

“Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” Paul, a young boy, finds a box of photographs of his long-dead father, whom Paul never knew. He stays home from school for several days, looking at the photographs. His mother, Ethel, who refuses to let her son call her Mama, criticizes Paul after hearing him tell his friend over the telephone that he is a “sick kid.”

One day, a few months later, Ethel awakens to find that Paul is not in his cot. She goes to the kitchen to search for him—skeptically because Paul never eats anything, as far as she can tell. She finds him at the back stairs, sleeping protectively beside the photographs. She tries to take them from him, saying the photographs are the cause of his being sickly. She wants to punish him and says she will...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Purdy achieves much of the intensity of his story through the contrast between the inertness of the generalizations spoken by the characters and the vitality of his symbols. The abstract assertions of both Mrs. Zilke and the father are the deadest of social cliches, meaningless abstractions: “You know everything,” “As long as a parent is living, any parent, a child has something.” Every conversation degenerates into such meaningless, trite, vague nonstatements with the repetition of highly abstract nouns such as “something,” “everything,” “thing,” or equally vaporous verbs such as “know” or “seems.” Such generalizing vitiates all of their perceptions.

The images, on the other hand, accrue meaning or significance as Purdy either directly associates them with characteristics of his characters or takes images with strong traditional meanings and gives them deliberate twists. The pipe smoke of the father and the cigarette smoke of Mrs. Zilke, which are examples of the first use of symbols, represent the amorphous deadness of their thoughts and feelings expressed in the equally dead words that issue from their mouths. As the smoke obscures their faces, so their words obscure reality by acting as a screen between themselves and their feelings as well as the world about them. The image of the title is symbolic in the same way. The color of darkness is a noncolor or the most abstract of colors. It represents the opposite of the...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Color of Darkness

(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

Critical Evaluation:

Color of Darkness, James Purdy’s first book, is a collection made up of eleven short stories and a novella. In the course of the work, ordinary human experiences are purposely exaggerated to reveal a covert truth.

Purdy went on to write novels, more short stories, and plays. Yet if a writer’s first book can be thought to serve as a signpost to the road of his intention, Color of Darkness points the way to a very personal arena that Purdy was marking out as his own, and in it he dealt with the sort of problem, and the types of people, with which he continued to concern himself in his later oeuvre. From the time of his first work, Purdy showed a penchant for unusual and often bizarre situations that his characters, by contrast, seem hardly to notice. In Purdy’s work, the outlandish is handled with nonchalance, and the mundane contains the outlandish.

Each story, like a candle, would guide readers through the darkness, but some burn more and others less intensely. In the more skillful stories, “Sound of Talking,” “Cutting Edge,” and the title story, “Color of Darkness,” readers are inescapably confronted with one of the most hidden of human secrets: Contact with one another makes people the helpless victims of ambivalence. The lifelong precept that there should be no hate for those who are closest and dearest forces people into concealing the truth when it is at variance with the precept. In Color of Darkness, Purdy tries courageously to explore that hidden passageway and to shine his light on the unreasoning, frightening ambivalence that causes a child to brutalize his pet and then to hug it lovingly and tearfully.

In “Sound of Talking,” probably the best story in the collection, Purdy demonstrates how surely he can implicate his reader in the situation he draws. In a kitchen, a woman is talking to her husband, Vergil, who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair; he is in pain. Mrs. Farebrother, who knows her husband well, counters his steady flow of bilious expletives with a loquacity designed to distract him from his pain. By the time they realize that the deceptively innocent kitchen is really Mrs. Farebrother’s wheelchair and that she is irrevocably locked into her husband’s ebbing life, readers have already witnessed and sympathized with her impotent flutterings of chatter. By allowing themselves to welcome her to the fire, Purdy’s readers must recognize that her ambivalence, when it reveals itself, is a reflection of their own. At that point, the readers too need respite from the responsibility of caring for a helpless fellow human being.

It is small wonder that Mrs. Farebrother comes to admire a bird, a bird that not only can fly but can talk as well. The raven that called her into the seed store keeps readers focused upon that one point of concentration, Mrs. Farebrother’s paralytic ambivalence, so that all seemingly independent strands of thought or conversation are ultimately seen as a careful release from this single spool.

The woman first speaks of desire: She would like a bird, a raven. As she describes to her paraplegic husband the events that led up to that desire, she remembers her former attraction to a boy who was called The Raven, and that the bird talks of someone who is dead. Both thoughts are seen to be repetitions of her nighttime speculations. In the dark, in her need, she can safely wish Vergil dead, but during the daylight hours, when such thoughts have scurried to their hiding place, she must sheathe herself in solicitous redress. This has been her life’s condition since Vergil’s release from the hospital.

The raven is a perfect solution. It would amuse her husband, she hopes, and signify the achievement of a mutual desire; both will have made the decision to have the bird. That there would be an even greater profit is known to the reader by implication. The bird’s presence would give brazen, corporeal expression to her more timid, ambivalent, hidden thoughts. Vergil’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the pet, however, eliminates all possibility of their ever sharing a desire again. The...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Adams, Stephen D. James Purdy. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976. Provides detailed interpretations of Purdy’s work. Analyzes his use of character and theme, as well as his distinctive characteristics of symbol and style, placing him in the tradition of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Describes Purdy as a Christian existentialist.

Chupack, Henry. James Purdy. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Excellent introductory source. Presents Purdy’s use of gothic devices to portray a cold, barren world centered around loveless families. Clear analysis of each story, discussing character and exploring the collection’s basic theme of tragic incompatibility. Extremely helpful annotated bibliography.

Malin, Irving. New American Gothic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Discusses Purdy’s use of misfits as heroes, analyzing the symbolism with which he illustrates the horror in his characters’ everyday lives. Focuses on “63: Dream Palace,” “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” and “Man and Wife.”

Peden, William Harwood. The American Short Story: Continuity and Change, 1940-1975. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Evaluates Purdy’s ruthlessly honest portrayal of emotional or physical grotesques. Discusses his use of paradox and contrast in “63: Dream Palace,” “Color of Darkness,” “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” and “Cutting Edge.”

Schwarzschild, Bettina. The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968. Interesting collection of essays discussing Purdy’s use of setting and atmosphere and his uniquely accurate portraits of physically or psychically wounded characters. Good analysis of “63: Dream Palace” and “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name.”