Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most significant literary influence on Powers’s chaste, chiseled, and ironic style is James Joyce. Like Joyce in Dubliners (1914), Powers satirizes weak priests and describes in a style of scrupulous meanness the paralysis of a significant segment of society. Like Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), he defines his character in terms of the seven deadly sins.

Also like Joyce, Powers is a densely allusive author who conveys his meaning through biblical and literary references. Burner does not reject the olive branch (Genesis 8:11) from Tracy, who has the voice of the good and faithful servant (an allusion to the parable of the talents—Burner has surely buried his talent—in Matthew 25:21). Greedy for material security, he ignores Quinlan’s advice to “Take nothing for your journey, neither staff, nor scrip” (Luke 9:3). Quinlan is unable to see God in a few church buildings as Moses saw the Lord in the midst of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Burner is a priest of the highest order, of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), but he is tempted by money and, as the archbishop observes (conflating allusions to Matthew 19:24 and Luke 13:24), he gives the rich consolation and makes the eye of the needle a gate.

Powers also alludes to the sweetness and light passage in Jonathan Swift’s work of nonfiction The Battle of the Books (1704) and to Karl Marx’s statement that religion is the opiate of the masses. He considers golf to be a great secular symbol and quotes three lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Rock: A Pageant Play (1934) about a thousand lost golf balls. These effective allusions suggest an ideal standard of religious belief and behavior that is neither achieved nor approached by the priests or the laity in an age of secular materialism.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Merton, Thomas. “Morte D’Urban: Two Celebrations.” Worship 36 (November, 1962): 645-650.

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Preston, Thomas R. “Christian Folly in the Fiction of J. F. Powers.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 16, no. 2 (1974): 91-107.