(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of this story refers to a Welsh tradition in which a “sin-eater” was a person who sat up with the body of someone who died and ate a meal in the presence of the deceased in order to transfer the dead person’s sins to himself or herself so that the soul of the dead could go to heaven. This symbolism is the focus of this tale about a modern psychiatrist who dies unexpectedly, leaving several former wives and many female patients feeling betrayed.

When the narrator first hears about the psychiatrist’s death, she—like his other women—is horrified, yet also angry with him for having risked his life by pruning a tree, from which he fell to his death. There is a hint that the psychiatrist may have planned his death in order to punish the women who relied on him, forcing him to assume a strength of character that he did not have. His relationship with the narrator was more than professional, but less than intimate. Her sense of his betrayal infects her memories of their therapy sessions and leads her to reexamine her notions of reality and strength. As she tries to find meaning in Joseph’s death, if not in his life, she re-creates discussions that always led to his problems, needs, or fears. It is in this context that the story of “The Sin-Eater” is told.

Joseph, the dead psychiatrist, believed himself to be the sin-eater of his generation, absorbing all the problems, fears, and sins of his patients. However, as the story...

(The entire section is 435 words.)