Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
Although the coming-of-age theme is important in understanding the meaning of this story, it is Stuart’s handling of character that has made “Split Cherry Tree” one of the classics of the American short-story form. Luster, for example, is finely delineated. For the story to be successful, the reader must see him as a man who is fully capable of carrying out the violence that his threats against Professor Herbert promise. Without that element in his personality, the reader would know far too early that the story is going to have a happy ending, and the drama of the tale would be lost. At the same time, Luster cannot appear so violent and unregenerate that he becomes an out-and-out villain, for this would completely destroy Stuart’s theme and ruin his aim of developing sympathy for rural people. Stuart strikes this subtle balance in Luster Sexton’s character with a masterful handling of details. Most essential, he imbues Luster with a strong sense of justice and fair play, and this characteristic is evident in Luster’s early tirade against the school and its principal.
By building in this trait from the beginning, Stuart prepares the reader unconsciously to see the positive side of Luster’s character, which will gain much more prominence in the ending. Luster’s character is further enhanced by his love of the natural world. The only thing that he cannot finally forgive about the new school is its killing and dissecting of black snakes. When Professor Herbert offers to chloroform and dissect a snake to show Luster that germs are to be found everywhere, Luster urges him not to, explaining that he does not allow people to kill them on his farm. Dave, the narrator, notices that “the students look at Pa. They seem to like him better after he said that.”
Without this sort of careful preparation for the reversal of the reader’s attitude toward Luster in the closing part of the work, “Split Cherry Tree” would have the kind of trick ending that mars the work of lesser writers, the kind of endings that feature prominently in some of the weaker stories of O. Henry.
Customarily, the short-story form does not allow writers the freedom to tell stories in which a change of character (or a different interpretation of character by the reader) is featured so prominently. That sort of narrative is usually the province of the novel, which, because of its greater length, can show a gradual change of personality over time. It is a mark of Stuart’s mastery of technique that he is able to encapsulate a trait of the longer form and use it with success in a short story.
The character of Dave is also finely drawn. As stated earlier, he lives simultaneously in both the contemporary world and the outdated world of his parents. Were he completely to reject the values of his family—more specifically, to rebel against his father’s country ways and attitudes—the story would not be able to carry its meanings and themes. Instead, Stuart places Dave at the fulcrum of both value systems. Dave is embarrassed that his father goes to school with him, but he is not mortified at his father’s presence in the high school. Dave enjoys a wider social sphere than his parents.
While Dave seems to enjoy learning as well, especially learning about nature, he does not reject the farming life that nurtured and formed him. On the other hand, he is not solely the child of his parents; the modern world has a strong appeal for him, and he wants to participate in it as fully as he wants to maintain his contact with the hearth and the hollows of his native Kentucky. In the end, his father’s acceptance of the school and its modern ideas is a victory for Dave, for it allows him to live a richer, more complete life—sharing the love of his family and enjoying the fruits of the contemporary world as well.
Stuart took an incident he had heard about when he himself served as the principal of a rural Kentucky school and transformed it, through his genius in creating character, into a struggle between the old and the new, the familiar and the exciting. In doing so, Stuart used the short-story technique he had mastered so well, pinpoint characterization, to create a tale in a style that was distinctively his own—masterfully orchestrated, spare of ornamentation, and tightly focused on the lives and tribulations of rural Americans, a group he knew and loved.
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