Kate Vaiden Summary
by Reynolds Price

Start Your Free Trial

Download Kate Vaiden Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Kate Vaiden Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kate Vaiden is an unusual book in that it has its base in a sensationalism that is almost melodramatic, yet its author has the skill to elevate the narrative above the level of sheer sensationalism into the realm of serious literature that deals with and presents universal truths. Before she was eighteen, Kate Vaiden, now a fifty-seven-year-old woman, had survived the murder of her mother by her father and his suicide, the accidental death of her favorite lover, the suicides of two of her lovers, the illegitimate birth of a son, and the anguish of giving him up. The basic story has the makings of a cheap, tawdry novel, but Price imbues it with dignity and shows nobility in its protagonist, Kate.

The telling of the narrative occurs in 1984, when Kate—like Price himself—was recuperating from cancer surgery. Her brush with death has made her determined to find the son she bore some forty years before. Facing pressures with which she was quite unequipped to deal, she had abandoned him when he was four months old. Her story unfolds as a justification, an explanation that will possibly help her child, Lee, to understand, possibly even to love, his natural mother. The story is also a step in Price’s quest to understand his own mother, a quest that is prevalent in Love and Work and that he deals with more overtly in Clear Pictures, his autobiography.

In the first scene of the novel, Kate has accompanied her mother, Frances, to the funeral of her cousin, Taswell Porter, who has been killed in a motorcycle crash. Dan, Kate’s father, does not want Frances to go to the funeral, and he stays home in Greensboro in a rage. The day afterward, however, he goes to Macon, the rural community in Warren County where the funeral took place, and follows his wife to the grave, where she has gone with her cousin, Swift, to check the flowers placed there. Later Frances’s sister, Caroline, who had virtually raised Frances, comes to Kate with Swift, whom she forces to tell the eleven-year-old the news: Both of her parents are dead.

An oppressive burden of guilt is placed upon Kate. She muses that had she gone with her father to look for her mother, the killing might have been avoided. She inherits fully, as many Price protagonists do, the sins of the father.

Kate, even before her parents’ deaths, was distrustful. Now that she is faced with the abandonment that their deaths imply, she is still more distrustful. People reach out to her with love. She returns their love in some measure but never fully; she cannot trust enough to abandon her emotions to another person. Kate is not Price’s own mother, Elizabeth, but certain correspondences—Elizabeth was an orphan raised by an older sister—suggest that in Kate, Price was certainly trying to understand some of his mother’s personality traits and conflicts.

Left to be raised by Frances’s sister, Kate at thirteen has a rewarding love relationship with Gaston Stegall, a sixteen-year-old, who eventually joins the Marines and is killed. Kate’s adolescent happiness is snatched from her by death, just as her childhood happiness was destroyed by the death of her parents. She learns early that she cannot depend upon anyone, that, as the slogan in her penny-show garden proclaimed, people will leave you. If they do not leave voluntarily, death will take them away.

Kate’s life is filled with sorrow and disappointment. She finally tracks down Douglas Lee, the father of her son, who had lived with her cousin Walter in Norfolk. Walter had taken Douglas from an orphanage and had exploited him sexually. In retaliation, the young Douglas seduced Kate, resulting in her pregnancy. Now, after all these years, Kate reestablishes contact with Douglas, who works as a chauffeur in Raleigh. Before long, however, Douglas commits suicide.

Price does not provide the outcome of Kate’s reunion with her son after so many years. That is left to the reader’s imagination. Lee will hear the story that the reader has just read;...

(The entire section is 1,514 words.)