Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

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.