Themes and Meanings
“The Downward Path to Wisdom” is a symbolic story depicting a four-year-old child’s fall from grace. At its heart is imagery that suggests paradise and the Garden of Eden. Like Adam and Eve, Stephen is at first unaware of his own nakedness: He cannot figure out why adults throw a towel around him when he gets out of his bath, as though his body were filthy or evil. Both Uncle David’s box of balloons and the “last lemon” in Grandma’s pantry represent “forbidden fruit,” which the child Frances—Katherine Anne Porter’s equivalent of Eve—seduces Stephen into stealing. A revealing detail is the description of the last two balloons that the children take as “apple-colored” and “pale green.” When Stephen feels exhausted from inflating balloons, he places a hand on his ribs, as though searching to see if one is missing. The children drink their stolen lemonade behind a rosebush, a secret “garden” from which they are expelled by Old Janet. The story’s religious symbolism is further reinforced when Stephen and Frances use their lemonade to “baptize” the rosebush in the “Name father son holygoat.”
Stephen’s “downward path to wisdom” drops him from innocence and grace to a more disturbing world in which he can have no illusions. At the beginning of the story, Stephen is so naïve that he seems more at home with nature than with other human beings. Described as “like a bear cub,” he crunches peanuts “like a horse” and is dismissed by his father as “dumb as an ox.” He is not even named until several pages into the story. Nevertheless, as the narrative continues, this innocence is stripped away as Stephen’s relatives use him as a weapon in their futile battles with one another.
The adult world to which Stephen is introduced seems full of strange contradictions. His father brings him peanuts and then shouts at him for eating them. His uncle gives him balloons and then calls him a thief for taking some. The joy that he feels in giving is regarded as “stealing” by the adults. Throughout the story, Stephen learns that he cannot depend on the unpredictable adults who surround him. He must keep his own counsel, treading a pessimistic “path to wisdom” that others have forced on him.