Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Theft” is a unique short story in the Porter canon for several reasons. It is the first effort at incorporating autobiographical elements into her work. Porter developed an intense relationship with Matthew Josephson, her literary mentor and lover. His wife, after discovering the affair, told him to choose between them. Josephson chose his wife and wrote Porter a letter detailing the decision and the fervent hope they could continue working together and remain friends. Porter was crushed and humiliated by the rejection, which is echoed in the experience of this story’s protagonist.

Porter creates an atmosphere entirely different from those of her earlier efforts by placing “Theft” in a contemporaneous urban setting. She also uses flashbacks more extensively than in her previous work, and as integral parts of the story. Most of it takes place in the woman’s mind. Her heroine is defined slowly and with a myriad of small details not present in her earlier characters.

Porter employs a number of effective stylistic devices. She uses the weather to set the story’s tone through her use of the rain, establishing the bleak mood that distorts vision. Her use of material objects, such as the purse, hats, letters, and a cup of coffee, are skillfully and symbolically woven into the story. Camilo’s hat being destroyed by the driving rain is contrasted to Eddie’s stylish wearing of a hat under any circumstances and Roger’s protection of his. Porter uses the letter device for both reconciliation and termination. For Roger, the letter means the renewal of the severed relationship with his wife; for the nameless protagonist, a letter triggers a rejection of part of her past and precipitates her feelings toward the thief and the stolen purse. The use of the cup of coffee is masterful. The woman had a hot cup of coffee before descending into the infernolike basement to confront the janitor. By story’s end, after her heated altercation with the janitor and the realization that she is fully alone, the now-cold cup of coffee, combined with the rejected purse, symbolically drives home the sense of isolation and loss of love. It is easy to understand why most literary critics hail the subtle and complicated “Theft” as one of Porter’s minor masterpieces of short-story writing.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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