Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Irony is Gordon’s primary technique for presenting the complex relationships among southerners in the early twentieth century. Her first-person narrator, who unwittingly reveals more than he intends, is the basis for this irony. The rough living conditions and the brutality that interrupt relationships are offset in the early parts of the story by Jim’s basically good-natured acceptance of the bad luck that sends him back home. His language is a major component of the light humor as well as the shock of the story.

Gordon’s command of early twentieth century southern dialect is a natural device for grounding her story in reality. Although both her white and black characters speak generally the same way, she follows the custom of her era by using certain spellings associated exclusively with early black English usage. Modern readers may be shocked by the number of times that the white narrator utters such words as “nigger,” “colored,” “boy,” and “girl”; however, they are a part of the harsh reality of the story’s setting. They convey cultural attitudes that surface in the violence of the ending. To a certain extent, they also prepare the reader for Jim’s confused reasoning at the end and his attempt to blame his failed tobacco-curing effort on Frankie, who is the true victim. By showing Jim’s reliance on stereotypical attitudes, Gordon shocks her reader into recognition.

These characters, their setting, and their language are familiar through the works of better known writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. However, with stories such as “Her Quaint Honor,” Gordon joined her husband, Allen Tate, in preparing critics and later the general public for twentieth century formalist criticism. Their works and those of other New Critics attempted to demonstrate how technical issues of unity, irony, and ambiguity were to coexist with values generated in a context of family, religion, and the agrarian South.