Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

To compensate for the paucity of dramatic action, Wright Morris uses a variety of stylistic devices and techniques to enrich and enliven his story. Vivid images and provocative symbols abound—guns, birds, Mother’s corset, and moldy leftovers are examples—and language is dense with implication, such as Mr. Ormsby’s effort “to keep the springs quiet” when he rises so as not to disturb Mother. Reversals and surprises keep the reader’s attention, as when Mr. Ormsby lights a match in his basement cell to read the telegram about the boy’s death and discovers Mother’s hoard of illegal canned goods. Interruptions and delays create suspense, as when Mr. Ormsby is about to venture an opinion but must help with the dishes and defer to Mother’s observation of a thrush before he finishes his thought. Even within sentences Morris creates suspense through interrupted constructions: “The way the boy took to the out-of-doors—he stopped looking for his cuff links, began to look for pins—was partially because he couldn’t find a place in the house to sit down.” The substitution of the comma for a conjunction after “links” keeps the sentence moving and is another typical stylistic device.

Much of the impact of the story is shaped by various ironic contrasts. Some, not placed in direct opposition to one another, are relatively subtle, such as Mother’s creation of light in the attic in contrast to Mr. Ormsby’s striking matches in his basement cell. Others are immediately apparent, as when Mother grandly writes on a notepad “Ars longa, vita brevis” while sitting on the toilet stool. The story repeatedly juxtaposes things natural to things unnatural, contrasts underscored by a cliché to which Mr. Ormsby has frequent recourse: “It was only natural.”