Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435
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 progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that his sessions were more therapeutic for him than for the women with whom he surrounded himself. He was a sad, insecure, and immature man who used women to massage his ego and make him feel important.
When the narrator attends Joseph’s memorial service, she discovers that she has more in common with his former wives than with his other patients, whom she calls “crazies.” Her past conversations with him now make more sense to her as she realizes that she never really needed him. She recognizes that he was a weak man who needed these women, manipulated them, and devoured their hearts and souls, rather than their sins.
The narrator dreams of meeting Joseph at an airplane terminal, where he offers her cookies, which she recognizes as his sins. At first they seem too much for her, but her fears are overcome by her instinct that her strength will support her in accepting his sins. She now knows that she can cope with life without him.
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