Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Truman Capote was twenty-one years old when this rather lighthearted story was accepted by Story magazine. He quickly moved into a darker, more complex treatment of such materials, introducing the mysterious and sometimes the ominous into his southern gothic settings.

Even if she is actually a “half-wit,” there is nothing...

(The entire section contains 514 words.)

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Truman Capote was twenty-one years old when this rather lighthearted story was accepted by Story magazine. He quickly moved into a darker, more complex treatment of such materials, introducing the mysterious and sometimes the ominous into his southern gothic settings.

Even if she is actually a “half-wit,” there is nothing at all sinister about Olivia-Ann, as there is in the strange, feebleminded man in Capote’s “A Tree of Night.” Nor is the threat of violence a grim reality here, as it is in Capote’s later “experiment in realism,” In Cold Blood (1966). Capote is writing here more in the spirit of William Faulkner in his purely comic mode, found in such works as The Reivers (1962). Capote’s adversaries are so evenly matched in their human frailty that they seem to deserve one another.

The story really has no serious theme, though one might expect from the plot line at least the theme of initiation into the mysteries of adult life. The young husband is apparently as self-centered and ignorant at the end as he is at the beginning, however, and offers no indication of increased maturity. When he first comes to the country estate, he makes the pregnant Marge carry their luggage because he presumably has some “terrible trouble” with his back. Months later, when he is accused of laziness, he protests some vague “scurvy condition” to explain his idleness. At the end, he is concerned only with his own well-being, not with whatever ails Marge in advanced pregnancy. Thus, the story does not reveal any growth in character. Experience does not necessarily make men wiser.

Curiously enough, the physical characteristics of even so unheroic a protagonist and such odd old ladies have certain autobiographical elements. Capote himself was only five feet, three inches tall and was berated by his mother for effeminate mannerisms. Perhaps he converted what may have been a personally humiliating experience into the purely comic in the following passage:

While my back is turned, Eunice says, “You sure must’ve picked the runt of the litter. Why, this isn’t any sort of man at all.”I’ve never been so taken back in my life! True, I’m slightly stocky, but then I haven’t got my full growth yet.

Although in some circumstances, such an episode might lead the reader to condemn the verbally cruel aunt and excuse the foolish young man, it does neither here. One imagines the protagonist as being happily impervious to serious insult. The colloquial phrase “taken back” indicates more surprise than psychological pain.

Capote was himself reared by aunts and a grandmother and has used pairs of elderly ladies elsewhere, as in The Grass Harp (1951), with considerable affection. Even the flawed females of “My Side of the Matter” seem more commendable than their miserable nephew-by-marriage.

The story demonstrates Capote’s early facility with language, colloquial dialect, telling imagery, and comic-folk tradition. In fact, Capote once asserted of his own work, “The thing that’s most important is style; not what I’m saying but how I’m saying it; manner over matter.”

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