Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The major theme throughout “How Beautiful with Shoes” is the fall of Mare Doggett from ignorance into knowledge. Wilbur Daniel Steele presents both Mare and her fiancé, Ruby Herter, as a couple naïvely treating each other with animal affection: “They were used to handling animals, both of them; and it was spring. A slow warmth pervaded the girl, formless, nameless, almost impersonal.” Although Humble Jewett forcefully carries her off into the woods, his habit of quoting from some of English literature’s most compelling love poems eventually registers in Mare’s consciousness because of the sheer force of their poetic beauty. Humble’s first words to Mare, “Amarantha. . . . that’s poetry,” become the agents of her fall. Those lines and others propel Mare into a world of romance, beauty, and ecstatic declaration that she never knew existed. She begins to understand that there may be more to life than the obvious animalistic level that her names suggest: Mare, a female work horse, and her surname, Doggett. She slowly perceives, through the agency of poetic beauty, that there may be more to life than the brutal drudgery of being a farmer’s wife.

Although Humble Jewett is quite mad, he has found the resonating power of these immortal lines of poetry sufficient to sustain him in creating a world of his own, a world resplendent with grace, romance, and loveliness. When Mare returns from her traumatic journey with a madman, she is unable to shake off the transforming effects of hearing those lines, lines that reveal to her both the empty banality of her life and, simultaneously, the richness of the life of the imagination, of which she never had been aware before. The story concludes with an image of the young girl suspended, quite miserably, between the animal consciousness of life on a farm and an unattainable yearning for the romantic ecstasy that these magnificent lines of poetry seem to promise. A recurrent question that she cannot stop asking in the concluding pages of the story—“Is it only crazy folks ever say such things?”—accurately summarizes her agonizing confusion.