Summary

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Last Updated June 10, 2024.

Introduction

Katherine Anne Porter has been called a "poet of the story" because of her rich language, intricately woven ideas, and deep characterization. Her short story "Theft," written in 1930, exhibits all these traits. The author uses a seemingly minor incident to symbolize the profound loss experienced by the tale's protagonist.

The story is set in the contemporary period, probably in the late 1920s, in an unnamed city. It follows an unnamed woman through one night and one morning of her life, and readers watch as she encounters several men with whom she appears to have relationships and, finally, a janitress whose actions and words make the woman realize something important about herself and her life.

Plot Summary

The story opens with a woman looking for her purse. She remembers having it the night before, for she had dried it off with her handkerchief. Her mind flashes back to the previous evening.

The woman and Camilo, apparently her boyfriend, get caught in the rain after an evening at a friend's house. Camilo wants to take a taxi, but the woman knows they cannot afford it, so they hurry to the Elevated train instead. Camilo's new hat, in a "pretty biscuit shade" but completely impractical, quickly gets damaged by the rain, and the woman thinks that the hat will look shabby on him now, unlike Eddie's hats, which suit him well no matter what. Readers do not discover who Eddie is.

Camilo leaves the woman at the platform, bowing quickly and then hurrying away, hiding his hat under his coat as he goes. The woman then meets Roger, another man with whom she appears to have a relationship. He asks her if she takes "herself for a duck" and invites her into a taxi. As the driver careens through the city, the woman and Roger notice three drunk young men who are arguing about love and marriage and two young women arguing about a man.

Roger tells the woman that he got a letter from Stella, who will be coming home. The woman mentions that she, too, received a letter that day. Roger mentions that his show is "still hanging on" and that he is holding out. Then, the taxi reaches the woman's apartment building.

On her way up the stairs, the woman meets Bill, who invites her in for a drink. Bill complains about his play being discontinued on the rehearsal stage and about his ex-wife, who insists upon being paid alimony. They discuss Bill's new rug, used and slightly damaged but purchased at a discount.

The woman then goes to her own apartment and rereads "the letter" for certain phrases "insisted on being read many times." The letter-writer, presumably a man, perhaps Eddie, says he thinks of her more than he wants to but cannot understand why she would destroy what was between them. Even if he could see her, he would not. The woman tears up the letter and burns the pieces.

The next morning, while the woman is in the bath, the janitress comes in to check the radiators. When the woman comes out, she notices her purse is gone and experiences "a deep almost murderous anger." Yet calmly, she goes to the janitress and asks for her purse back. She does not want to lose it because it was a gift.

The janitress denies taking the purse, and the woman bitterly tells her to keep it. When the woman returns to her apartment, she reflects that she has never felt the need to lock her door, but she also meditates on everything she has lost, from possessions to words to unfulfilled plans to friendships to love. She is caught in a "landslide of remembered losses."

The janitress comes to the door and holds out the purse, confessing that she took it for her seventeen-year-old niece, who deserves to have pretty things. She did not think the woman would even notice it missing. The two women argue over the purse. When the janitress leaves, the woman sets the purse on the table and thinks that the only real thief in her life is herself.

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