Style and Technique

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In “Noon Wine,” Katherine Anne Porter brings people to life in scenes filled with physical detail and realistic dialogue. The characters are given human qualities in an attempt to make them more than abstract representations of fallibilities. Their actions, thoughts, and words make them seem like ordinary people. The general qualities that they represent are made more intense by the specific situations that are skillfully depicted. Each scene also foreshadows future events. Thus, the tragedy is made credible.

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An early scene shows the intimacy between the Thompsons. A debate over the merits and faults of Helton leads to a mock quarrel. Mr. Thompson pinches his wife, suggesting that she is too lean for his taste in woman. She retaliates by pulling his hair and calling him evil-minded. This playful domestic episode illustrates the close relationship they share and increases the tragic effect of their inability to communicate at the end of the story.

Another revealing incident is Mrs. Thompson’s witnessing of Helton’s attack on the boys for playing with his harmonicas. Hatch later reveals that Helton’s brother had been murdered for a similar offense. Helton’s irrational response to the molestation of his harmonicas is a foreshadowing of the madness that recurs with the appearance of Hatch.

Even Hatch reveals a typical human trait when he engages Thompson in a discussion on tobacco. This subject, however, does not relieve the farmer’s misgivings about the stranger. Hatch offends him by insisting that the use of sweetened tobacco is a sign of cheapness. Thompson likes sweet tobacco, and he thinks that the man is trying to humiliate him. He thinks about shoving Hatch off the stump in the hope that he might fall on the ax. Before long, the knife and the ax do come into play. Hatch’s propensity for offending others appears even in casual conversation. Thompson, put on the defensive, reacts violently.

Every scene, then, leads to the confrontation between Hatch and Thompson and to the disastrous aftermath. The weaknesses of the characters make their downfall unavoidable; their individual traits make them credible as human beings. Although the pessimism of this tragedy of the human condition is dominant, the impact of its message is softened by the engaging manner in which the story is told.

Literary Techniques

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In Noon Wine, Porter uses third person narration to highlight the interior lives of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson at crucial times during a nine year period. Mr. Thompson's skirmish of values when he first hires Helton, a foreigner, and his interior monologues about his failure as a farmer show his limitations as a narrator. The assessment he makes of Hatch when he first sees him prepares the stage for his fuzziness about what really happens when he strikes the man.

Parallel settings for the opening scene and the confrontation with Hatch reinforce the reader's readiness for a momentous occurrence. Both scenes take place in brutal heat, which befuddles Thompson's perception, and both take place in the side yard of the farmhouse, a relatively isolated area. Mr. Thompson's premonition of disaster also prepares the reader for the attack on Hatch.

The briefly but clearly documented decline of the Thompsons' family life after the murder and trial prepares the way for Thompson's suicide. When his sons, depicted as frolicking puppies at the story's opening, are suddenly grown men judging him guilty both of murder and violence toward his wife, Mr. Thompson can stand his life no longer.

Social Concerns

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In this short novel, Porter turns to the rural environment in which she grew up. The struggling farmers of depression era Texas may have more distance from their neighbors, but they are as concerned with social acceptance as are the passengers aboard the Vera. The Thompsons of this story are acutely aware of their standing in their community.

The desire to succeed in dairy farming, a task to which he and his wife are ill suited, is actually an articulation of Mr. Thompson's need to be respected in his community. Satisfaction of this need is complicated by his antipathy to so-called "woman's work." Since his sickly wife cannot take over these tasks, Mr. Thompson feels defeated by his farm. The Swedish hired hand, Mr. Helton, appears as the answer to a prayer. He makes the Thompsons successful, and they simply do not care to ask too many questions about his past.

In her essay "Noon Wine: the Sources" (1956), Porter writes about the genesis of the work in certain memories of social scenes she witnessed as a child. One of the most pertinent, the visit of a neighboring farmer and his wife to her grandmother, gave young Katherine Anne the vivid picture of a man struggling to keep the respect of his neighbors although he had committed a morally questionable act.

Literary Precedents

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Porter had stated in her "Reflections on Willa Cather" (1952) that all true art is provincial, firmly rooted to its specific time and place. In much the same way as Cather had done in O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918), Porter examines the potential for tragic moral struggle and deep emotions in supposedly "simple" people.

Porter's regional stories, such as "He," "Holiday," and "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," draw a vivid portrait of the hard life on Texas farmland, never presenting its inhabitants as quaint or dull. The harsh demands of combatting nature and winning a living from it leave no room for folksiness and gentle humor as in earlier Southern local-colorists like Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus tales. The literary heritage that Porter draws upon has much in common with that of Thomas Hardy and his Tess of the D'Urbevilles (1891), in which nature's harshness toward man is often mirrored in man's harshness toward his fellows.

Bibliography

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Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Brinkmeyer, Robert H. Katherine Anne Porter’s Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Busby, Mark, and Dick Heaberlin, eds. From Texas to the World and Back: Essays on the Journeys of Katherine Anne Porter. Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2001.

Fornataro-Neil, M. K. “Constructed Narratives and Writing Identity in the Fiction of Katherine Anne Porter.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Fall, 1998): 349-361.

Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Hartley, Lodwick, and George Core, eds. Katherine Anne Porter: A Critical Symposium. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969.

Spencer, Virginia, ed.“Flowering Judas”: Katherine Anne Porter. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Stout, Janis. Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Walsh, Thomas F. Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

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