The Grave Critical Overview
by Katherine Anne Porter

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

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‘‘The Grave’’ was first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1935, but it did not receive much critical attention until it was published again in 1944 as part of a collection of stories, The Leaning Tower and Other Stories. In this collection, ‘‘The Grave’’ was grouped with a smaller collection of short stories focusing on the character of Miranda, called ‘‘The Old Order.’’

Early reviews of The Leaning Tower and Other Stories were mainly positive, hailing Porter as a careful stylist and an important contributor to the genre of the American short story. In The Saturday Review, Howard Mumford Jones admired the stories’ ‘‘smooth literary texture’’ and the ‘‘exquisite rightness’’ of her style. However, he also criticizes her for an ‘‘approach [that] sometimes reminds one of a cat stalking its prey with unnecessary caution,’’ suggesting that her roundabout storytelling methods decrease the stories’ dramatic power. Similarly, Joseph Warren Beach, while admiring Porter as a ‘‘truth-teller’’ who was ‘‘refreshingly free from self-consciousness,’’ cautioned that the ‘‘deceptive quietness in her tone . . . may lead us to do less than justice to her writing.’’ Writing for the Kenyon Review, Marguerite Young claimed that ‘‘Miss Porter’s great service to the short story has been . . . that in her hands it acquires a new stature and significance.’’

Later critics would most frequently discuss symbolism in her work, finding ‘‘The Grave’’ in particular a story amenable to a formalist approach—a critical approach that emphasizes studying the story as a discrete whole, apart from considerations of the author’s biography or her other works. Such critics therefore considered ‘‘The Grave’’ without considering the context of ‘‘The Old Order’’ or any of the other stories in which Miranda was a central character. The ring and the dove found in the graves, the rabbits, and the grave itself have each been explained by a variety of different interpretations. William Prater interprets Miranda’s exchange of the dove for the ring as ‘‘symbolizing her unconscious willingness to trade her childhood innocence for the knowledge that the gold wedding ring represents,’’ adding that the grave represents ‘‘the ‘burial place’ of her mind in which she represses an unpleasant but meaningful experience.’’ In response to scholars’ attempts to fix meanings for the various symbols in the story, Dale Kramer suggests that the symbolism of ‘‘The Grave’’ works on both intellectual and subliminal levels. His reading of the story thus emphasizes the unconscious, and he argues, like others, that the form and symbolism of the story indicate Miranda’s psychological repression of ‘‘the fuller implications of sexual knowledge’’ contained in the vision of the unborn rabbits.

Some critics suggested that despite Porter’s alleged atheism (alleged because some say Porter was Catholic), the symbolism of ‘‘The Grave’’ was predominantly Christian, and subsequently offered Christian interpretations of the story. In a defense of his formalist methodology, George Cheatham dismisses the importance of Porter’s own beliefs to argue that the story should stand on its own. In that context, Cheatham proposes that the dove ‘‘unquestionably symbolizes the resurrection of man’s immortal soul through the power of the Holy Spirit.’’ In a later essay , Cheatham adds to this reading of the symbolism of the grave, arguing that ‘‘Miranda rejects all inherited structures of meaning— the past, the mythic, and the sacred (all suggested by the silver dove)—for the freedom of existence unmediated by structure—for the present, the personal, and the profane (all suggested by the...

(The entire section is 896 words.)