Style and Technique
Although “The Downward Path to Wisdom,” like all of Katherine Anne Porter’s stories, is told by an impersonal narrator, its events are clearly seen through only Stephen’s eyes. Thus the reader is never told what complaint Mama’s family has against Stephen’s father, or why his parents are quarreling so violently at the beginning of the story. Porter does not present a series of events so much as she describes the effect that those events have on Stephen himself. She includes no detail that would not have been known to Stephen or understood by him. Certain objects—such as Old Janet’s stole, described as “a dead cat slung around her neck”—are specifically characterized in terms reflecting Stephen’s limited comprehension.
Porter’s style combines the clear narrative technique of Ernest Hemingway with the more symbolic approach of James Joyce. Some critics even regard her character’s name, “Stephen,” as inspired by Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who goes off into exile at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Porter’s Stephen likewise goes into numerous “exiles.” First he is ejected from his parents’ bedroom; then he is excluded from their house for the summer; finally, he is sent away from his grandmother’s home.
Other critics trace Stephen’s name to that of Saint Stephen, the first century Christian martyr who was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin for his “blasphemy.” In Porter’s story, Old Janet characterizes young Stephen’s baptism of the rosebush as “blaspheming.”
Aside from Stephen and Frances, few characters are named in the story. This device serves to make the narrative more universal and to represent Stephen as an “Everyman” character, whose loss of innocence is simply part of every person’s maturation. The deceptively well-ordered world into which he is born is revealed throughout Porter’s narrative to be chaotic, hostile, and marred by petty jealousies. By the end of the story, Stephen is well on his way to adulthood, filled with more than a child’s share of cynicism and hatred.