Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–
An American short story writer, essayist, and novelist, Porter is considered a technical master of the short story. The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, Porter instills her work with profound irony, and her thematic considerations revolve around the workings of the heart and emotions, the difference between appearance and reality, and the consequences of self-deception. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Katherine Anne Porter's] sense of what makes for an ending is similar to that found in Aristotle's definition of Greek tragedy; and that was an analogy that she was proudly conscious of, as she remarked. "Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be."
In terms of the act of writing, this can be put differently and very simply: the story must tell you, "I know where I'm going." And that is where Mr. Helton comes in. "He just clumped down his big square dusty shoes one after the other steadily, like a man following a plow, as if he knew the place well and knew where he was going and what he would find there." That's how Mr. Helton walks into the story "Noon Wine," and into Mr. Thompson's life. The story ends with Mr. Thompson walking out of his own life. As he says at the end of the story, "I still think I done the only thing there was to do" …; and there is no doubt that unless this statement of his made some kind of sense to us Miss Porter would feel that the story had failed. (pp. 230-31)
"Noon Wine," then, is a story which shows us where a man is going and what he finds when he gets there. But this sense of a direction is not something that can be grasped simply: what the story shows is the complex nature of "direction" in human life. To reverse Miss Porter's dictum, if the story creates a sense of order it does so successfully only insofar as it recognizes and respects life's confusion. The direction of a man's life is not the same as the direction a man takes when following a plow, and any writer who mistakes the one direction for the other is liable to clump down his big square dusty shoes one after the other all over his "story." When, after reading the story, we re-read that opening passage which describes the arrival of Mr. Helton, we must not only be struck by the implications of this description, now revealed by our sense of the ending, but must also believe anew in the particularity and incidental quality of the metaphor. The "as if" must genuinely lead us to the way the man walks as well as to the strange sympathies and antipathies in the story that follows.
This palpable sense of a world is vitally important to the story's meaning. What happens is intelligible only in terms of the place where it happens. It is a matter not only of direction (which is one metaphor) but also of texture (a different metaphor). The murder Mr. Thompson commits is as much a matter of the heat as anything else. "Meantime the August heat was almost unbearable, the air so thick you could poke a hole in it....
(This entire section contains 2759 words.)
The dust was inches thick on everything."… The word "thick" is just right: it comes to mean more and more from then on in the story. It is the word that describes Mr. Thompson's voice after he has struck Mr. Hatch down…. "Thick" becomes resonant, a word that explores all the bafflement and inarticulateness of the man, his dim sense of a world growing thick around him, until it becomes unbearable…. And yet that is the world which he had always felt as solidly familiar. (pp. 231-32)
The word "thick," in the phrase "thick hands," itself expresses and explains Mr. Thompson's helplessness. The same word used in the description of his Sunday suit makes us feel the solid respectability of the cloth, a respectability so important to the farmer and so stifling a part of his tragedy. Once the language of the story becomes familiar (and this need not involve noticing the repeated use of a word, of course), there seems a particular aptness and poignancy in Mr. Thompson's writing his lonely suicide note with "a stub pencil" and on "a thin pad of scratch paper" taken "from the shelf where the boys kept their schoolbooks."… It is then that he fully realizes and accepts his isolation. (p. 232)
What dominates and guides [Mrs. Thompson's] understanding of what happened is her fear and suspicion of male violence and physicality. And yet what the story, through the shape of its action and the shape of its language, makes clear, is that Mrs. Thompson's bitterness here, her frustration, is of the same order as the bitter indignation and frustration that leads her husband to kill Mr. Hatch. This is quietly brought out …: "Her thoughts stopped with a little soundless explosion, cleared and began again."… It is typical of Mrs. Thompson that her "explosions," compared to those of her husband, should be "little" and "soundless." One of the most distressing things about her husband is that he is big and loud. Mrs. Thompson is more liable to implode than explode…. (p. 234)
The measure of the difference between what the same scene means to Mr. Thompson and to Mrs. Thompson is beautifully and quietly brought out by the language of the two following passages. The first describes the slowly mounting anger that leads to Mr. Thompson's killing Mr. Hatch. "Mr. Thompson sat silent and chewed steadily and stared at a spot on the ground about six feet away and felt a slow muffled resentment climbing from somewhere deep down in him, climbing and spreading all through him."… Though he cannot find what other people would consider proper reasons for this, his sense of how things are is stronger than his sense of how they would look to other people; and in persisting to act according to his feelings he relegates everyone else to the situation of outsiders, lookers-on. When Mrs. Thompson appears, her reaction is also very much in character. "Mrs. Thompson sat down slowly against the side of the house and began to slide forward on her face; she felt as if she were drowning, she couldn't rise to the top somehow."… (pp. 235-36)
It is important that both of these reactions should be in character. Each does what he or she does upon coming to the end of thought, and something else takes over to resolve the matter. "Thought" is, in fact, an important word in the story, and part of the meaning of the story seems to move through its recurrence. It is not by any means the only word of such importance in "Noon Wine"; and of necessity these words pursue no solitary course through the narrative. They are centers of gravity, attracting and concentrating meaning. Or, to put it another way, they quietly intensify the language of the world of the story. Their relationships to each other become vital to the way they mean anything—as "thick" can be said to lead in the direction of the language of the end of the story.
The word "think" attains a similar life of its own: "Mr. Thompson couldn't think how to describe how it was with Mr. Helton…. It was a terrible position. He couldn't think of any way out."… This use of "think" is more than accidental. The problem of not being able to think is the heart of the tragedy, not least because thinking is a means of finding a way out through words. It is a process of understanding, a way of discovering, a form of knowing—and "knowing" is a word significantly related to "thinking" in this story. It is not only of his children that Mr. Thompson can feel, in the earlier part of the story, that he has succeeded in raising them "without knowing how he had done it."… [Mrs. Thompson says:] "I always say, the first thing you think is the best thing you can say."… [This] provides a good account of the embarrassment and real difficulty of sustained thinking for such people as these. Their minds work painfully slowly, bemused at the least disturbance of the limited vocabulary of their understanding. But because of this they come to stand for the real difficulties of thought and understanding…. Katherine Anne Porter is here able to bring [the complications of meaning and the halo that surrounds events] out through the fumbling ordinary speech of her characters. There is a distinct difference between bungling and fumbling. Mr. Thompson starts out as a potentially comic figure—a bungler: and this contributes all the more to the tragic figure he becomes, fumbling in his memory, trying to get things straight. And it is this that gives point and dignity to his death—to his fumbled suicide, all the more deliberate and meaningful because it is such a clumsy thing to do.
The word "think" leads, then, to some such understanding of the story as has been here suggested. But to say that an important part of the story's meaning seems to be expressed and explored through the use of a simple word is not, obviously, to say that every use of that word in the story is significant. Still, there are casual, unimportant uses of the word that become charged with at least a measure of irony when some of its meanings elsewhere are recalled…. The point need not be labored. All that is worth noting is [that a phrase like] "the more I got to thinking about it" becomes resonant with additional, ironic, bitter meanings, gathered from the rest of the story and the powerful history of the phrase. The intensity of "Noon Wine," the peculiar texture of its meaning, is created in this way. (pp. 236-37)
Mr. Thompson's suicide is committed as deliberately, as thoughtfully as he writes his final letter. Here he not only stops to think but thinks and then stops; here he takes his stand; and here, on the last page, many of the words that have taken on great strength of meaning throughout the story lend their strength and depth to this last scene. (p. 238)
[There] is dignity of a high order in Mr. Thompson's death. The key words in these final passages are "cautiously" and "carefully."… The details are right; Mr. Thompson's arrangements are careful and detailed. He does not rush on death, he approaches it deliberately, walking "to the farthest end of his fields" and in the direction to which the whole story may now be seen to point. He does not drown thought in the roar of the gun. Though his suicide is clumsy, fumbled, movingly awkward, it is literally an achievement of the mind, an achievement of thought…. The story ends here, at the "logical" end of the plot: there is no other way out. The words Mr. Thompson speaks towards the end are words he "has to" speak. Though they come out of his deepest experiences, they are the simplest of words. The words with which he takes leave of his wife are charged with the whole meaning of his tragedy. He leaves her in the hands of the "boys," saying that he is just going out to fetch the doctor…. Though Mr. Thompson is not one to speak pregnant sentences, the sentence, "You'll know how to look after her," is nevertheless pregnant with meaning. It is full of his resignation—in all senses of the word: his sense of finally having to give up, to act out the inevitable, and the identification of this with "resigning" his wife, committing her to the care of those who know how to look after her. He no longer knows. And there is tragic irony here. During all his married life he has been devoted to her; a great part of the sense of his life has come from his care for Mrs. Thompson's delicate health. Moreover, this care and protection of his wife has sustained his sense of his own manliness, a manliness that has now been challengingly, almost threateningly, assumed by his sons. (pp. 239-40)
The fresh start he makes is very different from anything he had imagined only a short time previously. But it comes from the final complete understanding he has of how and where he stands. Everybody believes him a murderer: he believes that he is not….
[He and his wife] are isolated by what they "don't know" as much as by what they know, and as such they become two witnesses on our behalf to the terrible mystery of life. The infinite chaos of their situation springs in part from their lack of imagination but much more from the unimaginable chaos of life…. What Mr. Thompson knows at the end of "Noon Wine" is the depth of his unfathomable world.
Something of this has been in the story from the first. Mr. Thompson has been prone to bafflement all along…. (p. 241)
"A stranger in a strange land": that perfectly sums up Mr. Thompson's situation at the end of "Noon Wine." Is it "God's world" … or is it "a strange land"? Are the phrases incompatible? Mr. Thompson, like Mr. Helton, talks wrong: "his words wandering up and down."… His accent is all wrong, he puts the emphasis in the wrong place, and his neighbors, even the Thompson family, can't understand him…. [The harmonicas are Mr. Helton's] speech, his language; they are what enable him to express himself, to understand himself, to survive. They bring order into his world. And this is what—metaphorically, not literally—the song Helton plays over and over to himself means. It stands for everything that people, in this story and out of it, cannot "put into words, hardly into thoughts."… Mrs. Thompson assumes that what the song means is in the words; and several critics have followed her, believing that the title of the story needs to be understood in terms of the words of the song. But this can be only partly true. Mr. Thompson learns through bitter experience what the song "means." At the end he knows that it means one man's being isolated with his understanding—the fateful privacy of meaning. (p. 244)
Katherine Anne Porter spoke of the shape of a story, the way it is brought to "a logical and human end." "Human" here is not an addition to the logic but the character of the logic: it is the logic of human experience. And that is what this essay has been concerned with exploring. It has tried to show the "direction" of "Noon Wine," which is of course "where it is going." "Direction" can be a misleading word—it is too linear in its implications; "shape" might be better, it can at least imply body, which allows for what here has been called the texture of the story. What this reading has tried to suggest is that feeling this is a matter of realizing how a certain language is characteristic of the story: the "logic" of "Noon Wine" is the same as its character.
What is remarkable is that the "plot" thickens to the extent that a reader masters the story in its ordinariness. A story creates a sense of order successfully only insofar as it recognizes and respects life's confusion. The order of "Noon Wine" is gradually sensed in the fine confusion of people's talk. It cannot be extracted: it must be left where it is. There is a depth and dignity of reticence to the story, and all the garrulity of explanation should finally rest on this.
The artist's task is to thicken language, to make it compact of meaning. There are ways and ways of doing this, since art knows no musts but only an infinite may. Katherine Anne Porter's way is that of a rich plainness. (p. 245)
[The] more one reads, re-reads, the more "the light thickens." And such thickening of the light in "Noon Wine" seems to be of the nature of that kind of intensity that is tragedy…. Her story is about ordinary people, all the more ordinary in being "strangers in a strange land." They are unaware that in their lives they act out the ceremony of fate. We, through them, are made aware of the fearful symmetry of a life. (p. 246)
M. Wynn Thomas, "Strangers in a Strange Land: A Reading of 'Noon Wine'," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), May, 1975, pp. 230-46.
Like so much American writing—particularly Southern writing—Katherine Anne Porter's stories of the Old South ("The Old Order" series and "Old Mortality") based on her family past in antebellum Kentucky and Texas during the Reconstruction Era offer a statement about the past and its impact on the present. At the same time, these stories provide a way of approaching Porter as a woman writer. Like Faulkner—also writing about the Southern past in the mid-1930's—Porter takes as her subject the artificiality and inhumanity of the Old Order, presenting it from the standpoint of the woman's experience. While Faulkner emphasizes slavery and racial injustice, Porter takes as her subject the rigidly circumscribed experience and sexual repression of the white Southern woman—kept like the blacks in submission and fear by the doctrines, taboos and social realities of a paternalistic culture.
This theme is not restricted to Porter's stories of her native South. The theme of woman's oppression, especially emotional and sexual inhibition, may be found in everything she wrote. A feminist critical stance is a primary element in her view of American society—a view confirmed by her experience as an expatriate living in Mexico during the 1920's. Compared with the vividness of Mexican life, particularly the simplicity and spontaneity of the Mexican Indians, American culture seemed emotionally impoverished, narrowminded and dishonest. The damage to women in such a society appeared even more obvious to her. During this period Porter frequently attacked the "puritanism" of American culture, joining in with other critics of the twenties, and along this line she began a fictional biography of Cotton Mather which portrayed him as a sanctimonious hypocrite whose wife suffered martyrdom under his tyranny—jointly condemning self-serving Puritan piety and male-dominated marriage. (pp. 48-9)
Woman's emotional frustration, sexual repression and subjection to the laws of a man's world constitute a major theme in Katherine Anne Porter's fiction. Female characters, who predominate in her work, are typically damaged by their experience. Family ties, marriage and love are threats to freedom; those women who attempt to escape are usually thwarted; and even those who gain independence achieve it at great cost. For many of Porter's heroines, like those of "Flowering Judas," "Theft," and Pale Horse, Pale Rider, escape takes the form of inner withdrawal from life. Although she has long maintained an enigmatic silence about herself, the insistence with which Porter returns to the themes of female entrapment and resistance, the damage of sexual inhibition and the failure of love in the lives of women, tempts one to speculate about the personal statement embedded in her work. Her autobiographical stories may provide us with some clues.
The stories of the Old South are central to Porter's oeuvre, illuminating the fiction leading up to them and following them. They are unusual in several ways: they are openly autobiographical; though written over the span of a decade, they fall into a pattern, being united around the heroine and called the "Miranda stories" (together with Pale Horse, Pale Rider); they present a wide variety of characters illustrating the kinds of feminine models Porter grew up with, thus providing insight into her ideas about herself and woman's role in society.
These stories make it clear that Porter's childhood experience offered her no acceptable models of womanhood. No "normal," happy young women, no satisfying or fulfilled marriage relationships are described in the Miranda stories. Closely following the author's own life, the stories tell us that Miranda's mother died when she was two, and her father is a shadowy figure. Men are usually weak, or absent characters; Miranda grew up in a matriarchal household dominated by [Sophia Jane] her grandmother, a figure (modeled on Porter's own grandmother who raised her from infancy) who stands in striking contrast to the many trapped and damaged females found throughout Porter's work.
Miranda's grandmother illustrates the only kind of freedom or self-sufficiency a woman could achieve in Porter's childhood world, yet she achieved it only after long obedience to the conventional role of wife and mother, slowly surmounting the limitations of that role, and finally freed from it only by her husband's death. A woman must be alone to be free. (pp. 49-50)
But the alternative roles are no better. Another, very different response to the woman's situation under the Old Order is exhibited by the spirited and flirtatious belle, Miranda's Aunt Amy; but Amy's capricious behavior became self-destructive, and she had died young. Amy had capitulated to the sexual role demanded of her in many ways. But she refused to relinquish her supremacy as a coquette, a sought-after object of male desire. She resisted marriage because it meant giving up her freedom.
Miranda's cousin Eva, a homely spinster, illustrates a third alternative: having failed in the sexual competition of her youth, never having found her "definition" in marriage and maternity, she had compensated by becoming self-supporting as a teacher and campaigner for women's rights. Yet Eva is bitter about her past: independence was thrust upon her because she did not succeed in fulfilling the expected feminine role. Indeed, none of these women fulfills that role—that impossible combination of beauty, charm, chastity and grace which flowers into the capable wife and devoted mother, upholding the moral, religious and cultural standards of the household, while remaining submissive to her husband and the traditions of society. Clearly, Porter finds the demands of "Southern womanhood" to be incompatible with actual experience.
Miranda's response, finally, is to reject all these roles, to reject family, even love. The basic theme of the Miranda stories is "growing up female," and for Miranda, growing up entails repudiation of her family and her past. Each story centers on a crucial event or revelation which marks a stage in Miranda's awakening to the world—as a child of five or six, or eight, nine or ten. At the end of "Old Mortality" we glimpse her at eighteen, having emerged from the secure yet limiting world of her youth, renouncing all ties, "loving and being loved," committed to resistance and flight. (p. 51)
Miranda finds it hard to reconcile her grandmother's rigid authoritarianism with the story of her youth. The grandmother she knows is the embodiment of order and security who strives to instill in her grandchildren discipline, obedience and proper manners. And yet that very grandmother had suffered great trials, had worked with her hands to raise the food with which to feed her family. Her story exhibits a model of self-sufficiency and defiance of the established order which could not fail to stir Miranda's young imagination. Life had been a battle from which Sophia Jane had emerged triumphant, but she did not win that battle by remaining submissive to any code of genteel femininity. (p. 52)
The sufferings of Sophia Jane's life, as Porter sees it, resulted directly from the moral and social values of the Old Order—values she associates with the men who dominated it. Porter exalts her heroine in proportion to her resistance to that order. Built on the immorality of slavery, locked in the unrealistic dream of a labor-free existence for the privileged rich, not only denying the humanity of an entire race, but denying women like Sophia Jane the natural fulfillment of their protective and nurturing functions, the Old Order destroyed human character.
Through the grandmother, Porter extols womanhood, and at the same time demonstrates through her story the weakness of the men corrupted by a dishonest society, as well as the obstacles that lay in the grandmother's path as she tried to express her character and virtues. Clearly it was largely by chance that Sophia Jane was forced to win her freedom.
Many other women of that hard time had not survived, among them her own daughters and her daughter-in-law, Miranda's mother, who died in childbirth. Whatever strength the grandmother had acquired was the result of a desperate struggle, and was not to be transmitted to succeeding generations. (p. 55)
The legend of Miranda's Aunt Amy, described in "Old Mortality,"… also comes out of the past. Amy was a beautiful belle excelling in every feminine grace; but, ailing and unhappy, she had gone unwillingly into marriage and had died six weeks later, perhaps by her own hand. Amy's whole life had been a struggle against confinement and convention, personified in her strict, repressive father who made life "dull" and unendurable. Yet her story comes down to Miranda clothed in the irresistible aura of romance.
Miranda understandably identifies with such a passionate and defiant spirit. Throughout the Miranda stories there are hints that the little girl recognizes the narrowness of the role she is destined to fill; she resents the tight solidarity of the family which surrounds her, lectures her and admonishes her, and she recoginizes in her beloved grandmother the principal opponent of her freedom. She begins to realize that the restrictions placed on her have something to do with her sex. In "The Grave" (1935) nine-year-old Miranda learns the truth about her future procreative function when her brother kills and opens the belly of a pregnant rabbit. He swears her to secrecy: this is forbidden knowledge, and he should not have allowed her to see what she had seen. At last grasping the secret of her own sexuality, and the taboo accompanying this knowledge, Miranda senses a mysterious threat in her femaleness which will bind her still more closely to the rules of feminine decorum. (pp. 55-6)
"Old Mortality" describes how an ideal of femininity is communicated to the young Miranda—at ten, then at fourteen, acutely conscious of her approaching maturity…. Miranda wants … fervently to be like Aunt Amy, beautiful "as an angel," unequalled as a horsewoman, lighter and more delicate than any dancer before her time or since, remembered for her quickness of wit, her daring, and her devastatingly charming ways with men. (p. 57)
The romantic appeal of the legend is finally destroyed when eighteen-year-old Miranda returns home for a family funeral—her first visit home for more than a year. After she had run away from school to get married, her father had found it difficult to forgive her. Miranda meets her elderly Cousin Eva, a chinless old-maid schoolteacher and suffragist who had been tormented in her youth because of her homeliness. Eva presents a merciless view of the young girl's experience in the old days: the girls pitted against each other in desperate competition, their future contingent upon success in the marriage mart. "The rivalry … you can't imagine what the rivalry was like," says Eva bitterly. "Those parties and dances were their market." And behind all the delicacy and coquetry, "it was just sex … all smothered under pretty names … their minds dwelt on nothing else."… Eva particularly remembers Amy, who had mocked her because of her lack of chin: "Well, Amy carried herself with more spirit than the others … but she was simply sex-ridden, like the rest."… (pp. 58-9)
Although Miranda recognizes in Eva's savage account a distortion of truth as romantic as all she had heard before, though she hears in it Eva's bitterness at her own failure in the sexual contest, Eva's suspicions destroy the fairytale legend Miranda had so long accepted. Miranda despairs of trusting anyone else's version of the past, and resolves not to be "romantic" about herself: "At least I can know the truth about what happens to me," she tells herself…. But she does not realize how far she has already been shaped by romantic traditions; in her rebellion she imitates many a spirited family heroine who resisted having to define herself in terms of men. Miranda vows to escape family bonds; though she had run away to marriage, she knows that she will run away from marriage, too. She will repudiate love, she says to herself; but what she does not know, "in her hopefulness, her ignorance,"… is that it is too late. She cannot escape "loving and being loved," nor the grip of family and its legends, and she will never know the truth about herself.
Many ghosts out of the Southern past haunt Miranda, as they haunt her author-self as a mature woman. Katherine Anne Porter invests in the grandmother many qualities which constitute a womanly ideal; she stresses the grandmother's courage, her willingness to work, her commitment to her "natural" duty to protect and instruct the young, and her faith in nature's abundance—in short, her "natural" humanity and acceptance of life. But at the same time Porter realizes that this ideal had been purchased at a terrible price, and only by a painful resistance of men and a male-dominated world. It had maintained itself in the teeth of antagonistic forces so formidable as to make such self-sufficiency and courage impossible to imitate, difficult at times even to love. To carry out what she had to do, the grandmother had to become as strong, as absolute and inflexible as the men whose tyranny she had escaped.
Miranda will follow none of these women from her family past, except to follow them in rebellion. All three women had struggled in various ways to escape the restrictions of the role of Southern womanhood, and by the end of these stories we see Miranda, too, committed to flight, to withdrawal from experience and evasion of human ties—prominent patterns in Porter's fiction. But Miranda will never know the "truth about herself" because she cannot reconcile her need to express her own identity with any acceptable model of mature womanhood; she has never known one. As we may conclude from Pale Horse, Pale Rider—the last Miranda story—and from the bulk of her later work, Katherine Anne Porter's own experience was that of the failure of love and the death of the heart. Her stories of the South help to explain why. (pp. 59-60)
Jane Flanders, "Katherine Anne Porter and the Ordeal of Southern Womanhood," in The Southern Literary Journal (copyright 1976 by the Department of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Fall, 1976, pp. 47-60.
[In a speech given to a group of University of Maryland students in 1972, Katherine Anne Porter] said that all her fiction is reportage, it really happened, but she arranges it and it becomes fiction.
Her most ambitious attempt to explain her creative process was made at the invitation of Robert Penn Warren and appeared as "'Noon Wine': The Sources" in Yale Review in 1954. In this essay she related the separate anecdotes which formed the basis of "Noon Wine," saying that the story was "true" in the way that a work of fiction should be true, created out of all the scattered particles of life she was able to absorb and shape into a living new being. (p. 217)
A comparison of the epistolary and fictional versions shows omissions which are as significant as the events either reported exactly or transmuted. The letters show that Porter was very interested in the political situation around her. (p. 220)
Porter's omissions do not indicate indifference, since both the letters and personal reminiscences of friends testify to her intense political and social awareness…. They show rather her ability to hold taut the thread of her theme. Porter was very sure of her theme's scope and ruthless about excluding all details, no matter how interesting, which did not bear on that theme.
In "The Leaning Tower" the political atmosphere was useful in providing texture, but subsidiary in its importance to theme. Closer to "Old Mortality" than to Ship of Fools, the story turns on the contrast between the imagined dream of paradise and the hellish reality of the present. Finding themselves stranded in Berlin, all the characters in "The Leaning Tower" dream of paradises past and future. For the barber it is Spain. For Hans, Paris, and for Rosa, the unreal Italy of her honeymoon. Tadeusz Mey wishes to go to London, but he dreams also of his childhood in Cracow, remembering the place as something between a cemetery and a lost paradise, with an immense sound of bells. Only Charles has actually attained his imagined paradise, and the story records his disillusionment as he discovers that Berlin does not merely fail to measure up to his dream of paradise, but is, in fact, a hell on earth.
When she described the genesis of "Noon Wine" Porter spoke of drawing heavily upon childhood memories. She draws equally heavily on them in "The Leaning Tower," filling out Charles Upton's past from her own childhood experiences. She describes Charles as growing up on a small farm, dreaming of Germany as his earthly paradise. Katherine Anne Porter likewise grew up in a small farming community, and her dream of paradise was also Germany. (pp. 222-23)
Throughout ["The Leaning Tower"] the horror of the time is balanced against the earlier point of view. The standard of comparison for every detail of life in Berlin is the Texas of Charles Upton's youth, evoked both in his memories and in his speech. When he sees Hans's Mensur scar he muses that people in San Antonio would think he had been involved in a cutting scrape with a Mexican. He thinks that Texas is full of boys like Otto and that Hans reminds him of Kuno. In the cold winter he thinks that in Texas he has seen northern travelers turn upon the southern weather with the ferocity of exhaustion. In his speech he uses American slang, especially later in the story, as if fulfilling Tadeusz's expectations of American speech. He thinks that his dancing companion in the cabaret is a "knock out," tells her that she's a "whizz," and says, "What say we give up the technique and let nature take its course."
Thus Porter juxtaposes past memories and present impressions; the laying bare of the sources of "The Leaning Tower" is as instructive as her own explanations of the sources of "Noon Wine" and "Flowering Judas." It shows the range and variety of experiences which she telescopes together, the immense compression and care which go into her selection of details, and the sure sense of the time necessary for the ideas to mature and assume their final perspective. (pp. 224-25)
On the subject of her symbolism Porter has been reticent, perhaps almost embarrassed. Possibly her attitude is the result of having seen her symbols overexplained and even on occasion reduced to a series of geometric diagrams. She has quoted more than once, each time registering horror, Mary McCarthy's story about a student advised by her creative writing teacher to finish her story by adding some symbols. Porter has said that she never in her life consciously took or adopted a symbol. What she means is that she never imposed a symbol upon a story but rather used the symbolic implications of actual objects.
"Flowering Judas" is an example of her method, for she has said that it was only on looking back over the finished story that the whole symbolic plan became visible. She did not invent the Judas tree or write it into the story, but saw it there in the Mexican patio she was describing. As she worked on the story over a period of ten years, the biblical and literary associations of the tree came into her mind. The final version gains its texture from the associations with the story of Judas Iscariot, with The Education of Henry Adams, and with Eliot's Gerontion. The Leaning Tower of Pisa functions in a similar way.
On the simplest level the replica is a cheap tourist souvenir, as fragile and insubstantial as the dreams of paradise of all the characters, particularly of Rosa for whom it represents a brief period of honeymoon happiness. (p. 225)
The Leaning Tower of Pisa … has sinister overtones from its association with Canto XXXIII of The Inferno, where Dante meets the traitors to their own country. The central figure here is Ugolino of Pisa who conspired with an enemy party of that city in order to defeat a rival faction within his own Guelph party. His treachery merely served to weaken his own party so that he found himself at the mercy of the very enemy with whom he had conspired. Imprisoned with his children and grandchildren in a tower (not the Leaning Tower, although the story is closely connected with Pisa through Ugolino's imprecation against that city), the keys thrown away, he was forced to watch them all die of hunger before he himself starved to death….
The account of the chance-gathered occupants of Rosa Reichl's pension, all wanderers or defectors from their own native lands, is full of images emanating from Ugolino's story. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the pension in which they are all shut up, waiting for disaster and with no means of escape (only for Charles Upton is a ship coming from America), is conveyed in images of imprisonment, starvation, cannibalism, death, and hell. (p. 226)
Hell is the frequent expletive on many lips, the infernal references culminating in the smoky subterranean nightclub. Charles thinks that the pension is a "hell of a place really," and thinks of himself: "Hell, maybe I'm a caricaturist." When he feels hatred for Hans he thinks, "Hell, what of it?" Tadeusz hears him and gives back the echo: "I think so too, I think, hell, what of it?"
Like Ugolino, Charles experiences a series of warnings of danger, persecution, and death. Sometimes they are actual dreams, as when the groans of Hans evoke a terrible nightmare that the house is a blazing, towering inferno. Sometimes they are mere premonitions that surface in his waking consciousness. (p. 227)
For Charles Upton, no less than for those who must remain in Germany, the problem of what action a man of vision should take is a real one. In the Walpurgisnacht scene in the nightclub he becomes fully aware of the corruption around him. He sees clearly that Hans is the real villain, full of hostility and vengeance, and he is not deceived by Hans's statement—made as he lovingly fingers his scar—that he is not bloodthirsty. As Charles watches him turning into a visibly Satanic being, he is well on the way to recognizing the monstrous evil everywhere around him….
At the end of the story there is no course of action immediately clear for Charles, and Porter does not force a resolution where she does not see one. There is no sudden departure as there is at the conclusion of "Hacienda," where the first-person narrator takes flight from the deathly situation. Nor, on the other hand, is there a sense of the character's bewilderment, as there is at the end of "Old Mortality," when Miranda asks, "What is truth?" and determines naïvely to find it. What Charles achieves is clarity of vision, the ability to face up to the situation unflinchingly and not take flight in any of the ways available—drunkenness, daydreams, self-pity—or in occupations good in themselves but bad if used as refuges from reality, such as work, art, or academic studies. Perhaps this is what Porter meant when she said once that the first responsibility of the artist in time of war was not to go mad. At the end of the story Charles's lost innocence and newly gained wisdom are summed up and conveyed in his speculations on the mended tower:
It was mended pretty obviously, it would never be the same. But for Rosa, poor old woman, he supposed it was better than nothing. It stood for something she had, or thought she had, once. Even all patched up as it was, and worthless to begin with, it meant something to her, and he was still ashamed of having broken it; it made him feel like a heel.
The recognition of the significance of the tower with all its literary and legendary associations is as crucial to an understanding of the meaning and the technique of the story as it is to Charles Upton. It is the center around which all the themes, moral implications, and images converge, harmonize, and arrange themselves into a coherent whole; once its position is recognized the entire pattern of the story is revealed and completed. (p. 230)
Joan Givner, "'Her Great Art, Her Sober Craft': Katherine Anne Porter's Creative Process," in Southwest Review (© 1977 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1977, pp. 217-30.