Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most obvious thematic point of the story depends on the gap between Steve’s need to exonerate himself and Lee Roy’s seeming incomprehension of the moral crime that the white men have perpetuated on him. The related theme of moral blindness is reflected by Steve’s inability to accept the fact that this black man before him is indeed the same as Keela, who was made to act as a freak in a sideshow, and by Max’s seeming indifference to the moral crime that has been committed. Eudora Welty has said that she got the idea for the story one day on assignment at a fair. A man building a booth told her a story about a little black man in a carnival made to eat live chickens. It is the only real-life story she ever used, she says, for it was too horrible for her to have made it up.

Certainly the actuality of the story is horrible enough, but Welty sees more in the case of Little Lee Roy than one example of humanity’s cruelty to others. Lee Roy also surely catches her imagination as a real-life example of the mythical outcast figure forced to serve as scapegoat for the bestiality of society itself. She transforms the little black man into one of her holy innocents, exploited and elevated into a mythical figure.

Steve’s inability to look at things and know how they are and his insistence that this probably had to happen suggest that in some ways the story is a kind of parable of the guilt of the southern white man about his responsibility...

(The entire section is 495 words.)