Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

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"Tennessee's Partner" is an 1869 short story written by American author and poet Bret Harte. It received generally positive reviews; however, most of them came after the story was republished in 1870, as a part of a Harte's collection of short stories titled The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches. The story describes the friendship between two men who have two very different personalities.

"Tennessee's Partner" explores themes such as the meaning of friendship and loyalty and the importance of humor and optimism. It could be argued that the story is divided into four parts. In the first part, we meet Tennessee, the fun and playful gambler, his serious and humorless partner (simply addressed as "Tennessee's partner"), and the partner’s wife. Later on, we learn that Tennessee also fell in love with his partner’s wife and even eloped with her. However, after the cheating wife moves on with yet another man, Tennessee’s partner quickly forgives his buddy, and the two become best friends again.

The second part focuses on the trial of Tennessee, after he has been accused of theft and unlawful use of a weapon. The judge and the jury want to punish Tennessee severely, but his partner remains loyal to him and asks the court to give Tennessee a second chance. He even tries to bribe the judge, but the judge tells him that the law is sacred and that he cannot be corrupted. The judge sentences Tennessee to death by hanging.

The third part describes Tennessee’s funeral. The partner gives a speech in which he describes Tennessee’s life as fun and free and discusses how everything will be different now that his friend is gone. He then buries his partner and refuses help from the people who offer it. After everyone leaves, he sits on Tennessee’s grave, sadly remembering their friendship.

The fourth part describes the partner’s life after his friend’s death. The man basically loses the will the live. His health condition worsens with every passing day, and he feels very sad and melancholic. One night, he dreams of Tennessee and tries to reach out to him. We realize that Tennessee’s partner is about to die and that he will finally be reunited with his friend.

Essentially, this is a story that every person can empathize with. Harte captures the joys and merits of true friendship and the happiness we all feel when we are with our friends. However, he also accurately portrays the emotional state every person experiences when they lose someone dear: the grief and sadness, and the feeling that nothing will ever be the same again.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

Although some modern commentators have complained that “Tennessee’s Partner” strains credibility and borders on the maudlin, it remains one of the best pieces of short fiction to come out of the western, local-color tradition in which Harte played such an important part. Its sentimentality is balanced by the sort of rawboned, understated humor, borrowed from the tall-tale oral tradition, that marks the stories of Harte’s contemporary and one-time acolyte, Mark Twain. Harte uses a variety of comic elements, such as malapropisms, verbal irony, and inappropriate tone, to good effect, offsetting the sentimentality that otherwise might overburden the reader.

By employing an unidentified narrator who plays no other role in the story, Harte also distances the reader from the inward feelings and thoughts of his main character, making a psychological probing of his consciousness impossible. The narrator offers no explanation for the friendship of Tennessee and his partner; it is just there, inexplicable and mysterious. A simple, uncultured man, Tennessee’s Partner cannot articulate his feelings, except, by implication, in his artless but quaint funeral oration and his rhapsodic meandering in his death throes. Only the narrator, who is the thinly veiled author, and Judge Lynch are articulate. In fact, the story’s main flaw is perhaps the tendency of the author to editorialize, to orchestrate the reader’s feelings in an attempt to evoke pathos. Harte also strains in some of the descriptive passages, using the pathetic fallacy familiar from romantic literature to achieve a desired mood. For example, the forlorn plight of Tennessee, on the eve of his trial, is heightened by the vastness of the surroundings. Harte describes the nearby Sierra Nevada as being “etched on the dark firmament . . . remote and passionless, crowned with remoter passionless stars.” To the contemporary reader, such writing may seem turgid, but it would hardly have seemed excessive to the readers of Harte’s own period.

By carefully blending humor and pathos, Harte manages to skirt emotional clichés, keeping readers intrigued with his story. One may complain that he never really investigates the motives behind Tennessee’s Partner’s devotion to his friend, but that objection arises in the wake of modern psychological theories that did not impact fiction until some decades after Harte wrote the story. In his fictional world, characters are often what they are by virtue of an innate proclivity that circumstances can only reveal but not necessarily explain.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

Barnett, Linda D. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Press, 1972.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979.

Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

O’Connor, Richard. Bret Harte: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: A Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Stewart, George R. Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile. 1931. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

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