Katherine Anne Porter

Start Your Free Trial

Download Katherine Anne Porter Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Katherine Anne Porter Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Katherine Anne Porter’s short fiction is noted for its sophisticated use of symbolism, complex exploitation of point of view, challenging variations of ambiguously ironic tones, and profound analyses of psychological and social themes. Her career can be divided into three main (overlapping) periods of work, marked by publications of her three collections: The first period, from 1922 to 1935, saw the publication of Flowering Judas, and Other Stories; the second, from 1930 to 1939, ended with the publication of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels; and the third, from 1935 to 1942, shaped many of her characters that later appear in the collection The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories. Her one novel and two stories “The Fig Tree” and “Holiday” were published long after the last collection of short stories, in 1962 and 1960, respectively. These constitute a coda to the body of her work in fiction.

From 1922 to 1935, Porter’s fiction is concerned with the attempts of women to accommodate themselves to, or to break the bounds of, socially approved sexual roles. They usually fail to achieve the identities that they seek; instead, they ironically become victims of their own or others’ ideas of what they ought to be. Violeta of “Virgin Violeta” fantasizes about her relationship with her cousin Carlos, trying to understand it according to the idealistic notions that she has learned from church and family; when Carlos responds to her sensual reality, she is shocked and disillusioned. The ironies of Violeta’s situation are exploited more fully, and more artfully, in “María Concepción,” “Magic,” and “He.”

In the first, María manages, through violence, to assert her identity through the social roles that she is expected to play in her primitive society; she kills her sensual rival, María Rosa, seizes the baby of her victim, and retrieves her wandering husband. Social norms are also triumphant over poor Ninette, the brutalized prostitute of “Magic,” in which the narrator is implicated by her own ironic practice of distance from her story and her employer, Madame Blanchard. The mother of “He,” however, cannot maintain her distance from the image that she has projected of her retarded son; she is willing to sacrifice him, as she had the suckling pig, to preserve the social image she values of herself toward others. In the end, however, Mrs. Whipple embraces, helplessly and hopelessly, the victim of her self-delusion: She holds her son in tragic recognition of her failures toward him, or she holds him out of ironic disregard for his essential need of her understanding. “He” does not resolve easily into reconciliation of tone and theme.

Images of symbolic importance organize the ironies of such stories as “Rope,” “Flowering Judas,” “Theft,” and “The Cracked Looking-Glass.” In the first story, a husband and wife are brought to the edge of emotional chaos by a piece of rope that the husband brought home instead of coffee wanted by his wife. As a symbol, the rope ties them together, keeps them apart, and threatens to hang them both. “Flowering Judas,” one of Porter’s most famous stories, develops the alienated character of Laura from her resistance to the revolutionary hero Braggioni, to her refusal of the boy who sang to her from her garden, to her complicity in the death of Eugenio in prison. At the center of the story, in her garden and in her dream, Laura is linked with a Judas tree in powerfully mysterious ways: as a betrayer, as a rebellious and independent spirit. Readers will be divided on the meaning of the tree, as they will be on the virtue of Laura’s character.

“The Cracked Looking-Glass”

The same ambivalence results from examining the symbolic function of a cracked mirror in the life of Rosaleen, the point-of-view character in “The Cracked Looking-Glass.” This middle-aged Irish beauty sees herself as a monster in her mirror, but she cannot replace the mirror...

(The entire section is 3,335 words.)