Style and Technique
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...
(The entire section is 766 words.)