Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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“The Grave” is one in a series of Katherine Anne Porter’s stories that relate Miranda’s initiation into experience and into a modern world at odds with the traditional world of her grandmother. The initiation in this story is multilayered: seeing and touching the unborn rabbits in their mother’s womb, young Miranda discovers the adult secret of pregnancy and birth; applying this new knowledge to her own mind and body while perceiving the incongruity of the gold ring shining on her grubby thumb, she differentiates herself from her brother and comprehends her sex. This knowledge, springing as it does from death, exposes Miranda to the cyclical nature of life, a discovery that informs her vision twenty years later. Her flashback begins with a dreadful vision, suggestive of the rabbit episode, and at once fades to a vision of Paul, a vision charged mostly with life-affirming details: sunshine, youthfulness, the movement of hands, a smile, and the dove—symbolic of innocence, peace, and love. The adult Miranda’s layered vision suggests that she has assimilated her childhood initiation, for it reveals a comprehensive, cyclical view of life, one that accepts at once sweetness and corruption, joy and pain, life and death.

The images of incongruity throughout the story help prepare the reader (and young Miranda) for the adult Miranda’s vision: for example, children (symbols of innocence) playing inside the graves (symbols of experience, one of the story’s many links to the myth of the Fall); the young Miranda scratching aimlessly like an animal (one of several archetypal images); a rabbit (symbol of fertility and rebirth) that is dead; a birth that is arrested by death; a womb that is a grave. Readers are prepared, as well, by the many images of resurrection and rebirth: the brief opening frame presents a grandfather who does not stay buried and a grandmother who keeps digging up the past; the empty graves themselves imply resurrection; the dove’s emergence from the grave suggests innocence born from experience; Miranda’s sexual awakening is a loss of the tomboy and a birth into womanhood. The closing frame reveals a twenty-year-old memory exhumed and resurrected by a scene in the present, a scene that includes present death (the piles of raw flesh) and icons of past death (the candies).

Graves and treasures represent loss and recovery; together they suggest continuity. The word “grave” has at least three literal and figurative referents in the story: the graves in the old cemetery, the dead rabbit’s womb, and Miranda’s mind. All these graves conceal secrets and must be opened in the story (note Porter’s use of the Hawthornian word “veil”). The word “treasure” refers to all of those things that are revealed: the dove and the ring (representative of cycles and the children’s connection with their ancestral past), the unborn rabbits and the mystery of conception, the woman in Miranda, the awareness of continuity, and the image of Paul’s childhood face. Miranda’s epiphanic vision suggests that, although the mind is a grave, memories are alive and in transit. The mind, like the ancestral graves in the story, is a confluence where all that is remembered converges: the past and the present, the young and the old, the living and the dead.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

In ‘‘The Grave,’’ Porter’s use of symbolism allows a very short story to express a variety of themes. The ring and dove found by Miranda and Paul in the family cemetery, the rabbits, Miranda’s clothing— all of these elements contain many shades of meaning.

Coming of age
Only nine years old during the main part of the narrative, Miranda is not yet interested in the stuff of womanhood, like her older sister Maria’s violet talcum powder or wearing pretty dresses. When she puts on the ring her brother Paul finds among the empty graves in their family’s cemetery, however, she begins to feel differently. Before, she had been content to play in overalls and a...

(The entire section is 1,497 words.)