(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Denton Welch’s early stories deal with the recurrent theme of the loss of an innocent vision of the world. There is usually a fall of some kind in which an innocent young boy learns some devastating information that alters, or will soon alter, the way he feels about his life thereafter.

“The Coffin on the Hill”

One of Welch’s finest stories, “The Coffin on the Hill,” documents an eight-year-old boy’s first serious confrontation with mortality. The story concerns an Easter voyage of a family on a boat up a river in China. The story is told through the eyes of the eight-year-old as he experiences the mysteries of the Orient. The ship is, obviously, a symbol of an ark floating on the river of life, and life on the ship is Edenic. Welch is an unashamedly symbolic writer.

The cooks on the ship playfully tease the young boy with stories about drowned people in the river who, if he fell into the water, would pull him down to the bottom. His response is to return to his cabin, assume the fetal position, and hug his strange doll, which he has named “Lymph Est.” The family then visits an ancient Chinese graveyard, where the boy sees, while off on his own, an open grave with a rotting corpse in it. He is so stunned by the sight that he returns to his family but is unable to separate the lesson of death from the fear and the sure knowledge that even his dear mother will someday become mere dust and ashes. Though he is only eight, his sensitive nature already has begun to torment him: “For I knew that she would come to it at last; and that knowledge was unbearable.” His last act is to throw his favorite doll into the river as a sign of his growing maturity but also as a kind of propitiatory sacrifice that might somehow appease the gods of necessity and fate.

“At Sea”

“At Sea” can be viewed as a further development of the same themes found in “The Coffin on the Hill.” Again, there is a sea journey of a young boy, Robert, with his mother, but in this story the boy is pathologically attached to her to such an extent that their relationship becomes the major focus of the story. There is no father in the story at all. There is, however, a male character named Mr. Barron, who expresses some interest in Robert’s mother and asks her to dance at a party. Robert’s Oedipal jealousy so enrages him that he wets himself and publicly humiliates himself and his embarrassed mother. The reader discovers that his mother is showing signs of some eventual illness that seems fatal and, as in “The Coffin on the Hill,” the youthful protagonist is forced to face the inevitable death of his mother.

Welch introduces a princess and her little dog, who tries repeatedly to break his leash and gain freedom, characters presenting fairly obvious mirror images of Robert chained to his mother’s love. Some critics see Mr. Barron’s name as a pun on Charon, the mythical guide and personification of death, who is leading Robert’s beloved mother in a dance of death. The title of the story also foreshadows the plight of the boy after his mother’s death, when he will surely be “at sea” or alone and lost. One of the strange rituals that the boy practices is writing elaborate letters in spite of the fact that he can neither read nor write, so that the reader sees him as someone who also cannot “read” or interpret the signs or portents of the catastrophe of his mother’s impending death.

The narrative ends with a highly emotional loss of innocence as the boy realizes that his mother is ill. As he views her in a semiconscious state, he says: “He wanted to sing something so consummate and wonderful that his mother would turn over and smile and be happy forever; but he knew that she was dying and that she could not save herself.” It is fairly clear that both of these extremely well-crafted stories are, if not blatantly autobiographical, at least fictive expressions of the deep and abiding loss that Welch experienced during his mother’s lingering illness and eventual death when he was eleven years old.

His mother was a strict Christian Scientist and refused medication throughout her fatal illness, a fact that embittered Denton Welch against the beliefs and practices of that religion. Indeed, he quotes hymns and some of Mary Baker Eddy’s writings at the conclusion of “At Sea.” Not only does this story and several of his novels record young children’s loss of innocence, but also it particularly records the disappearance of the core of his emotional being, the love of his mother.

“When I Was Thirteen”

“When I Was Thirteen” is, unquestionably, one of his most accomplished stories; it certainly is his most famous and most frequently anthologized one. The reader sees only the beginning of a fall from innocence to knowledge. The major character experiences a violent beating from his brother after spending a day and night with an older lad named Archer. He has absolutely no understanding of the names his brother is calling him: “Bastard, Devil, Harlot, Sod!”—except “Devil.”

The story details a holiday trip that the unnamed narrator and his older brother, William, a student at Oxford, spend in Switzerland. William prefers the company of his fellow Oxford students and virtually abandons his young brother, who rather enjoys his solitude. Shortly after his brother leaves for an extended ski trip, the thirteen-year-old meets the handsome, charming, and friendly Archer, who is the same age as William. The younger boy is flattered by the attention of the attractive Archer, and they spend time together eating, skiing, and drinking. The younger boy is exhilarated by the contact and states quite honestly: “I had never enjoyed myself quite so much before. I thought him the most wonderful companion, not a bit intimidating, in spite of being rather a hero and thought that, apart from my mother, who was dead, I had never liked anyone so much as I liked Archer.” They get somewhat drunk together, bathe in the same water, and give each other body rubs. Nothing overtly sexual takes place, and though the language describing their contact is highly sensual, even sexual, innocence prevails. Indeed, the evening ends with Archer singing “Silent Night” in German and: “I began to cry in the moonlight with Archer singing my favorite song; and my brother far away up in the mountain.”

Though the boy sleeps at Archer’s that night, he awakens with a hangover the next morning and goes back to his hotel just as his brother, William, returns from his ski trip. Once William hears about the boy’s escapades, he assumes that Archer has sexually seduced his brother and proceeds to beat his innocent brother, plunging his head in a basin of ice water and plunging his fingers down his brother’s throat forcing him to vomit. Welch has so brilliantly constructed the story that the reader, not the boy, experiences the fall from innocence to knowledge, anticipating the boy’s fall when he discovers what those words mean in the future. What the thirteen-year-old will find out is that what he experienced as genuine love, affection, and care from Archer is labeled, by the world, as sodomy and prostitution. Welch also cleverly uses the name “Archer” as a possible mythic echo of Cupid whose arrows cause people to fall in love.

Welch has further indicted types such as William and his friends who hate and fear Archer but do not know why. Robert Phillips, the most reliable critic on Welch, theorizes that William may be projecting his own fear of his homosexual feelings toward Archer. This fear, in turn, causes him to read homosexual undertones in perfectly innocent relationships. Archer is probably homosexual, but he is also rich, independent, and comfortable in his sexuality. It could...

(The entire section is 3204 words.)