Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

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Truman Capote packs “A Tree of Night” with clues for many themes, all of which relate to the fact that the story is a rite of passage piece that captures the moment when a nineteen-year-old woman passes from childhood innocence to adult sexual awareness. The peach seed, for example, is both masculine and feminine in context: The seed that a male implants in a female produces new life. This shellacked seed in the story, however, is impotent, and thus serves as a symbol of sexual union without reproduction. The mute man’s handling of the seed arouses erotic and nameless responses in the innocent college sophomore, who flees to the platform of the car, only to yield compulsively to a desire to fondle the phallic lantern funnel. In doing so, she is fascinated by the tone and texture of her hands as they become luminous and warm while the funnel’s heat thaws her and tingles through her.

At this same moment the mute appears. Looking up at him, his arms dangling, Kay recalls the tree of night that she feared in childhood. She remembers that adults in her youth filled her with superstitious fears by saying that a “wizard man” would steal her if she did things that she should not. Back then, a tree tapping against her window played on those fears. Identifying the mute man with her childhood, Kay, at the very edge of passage into full adulthood, follows him back into the coach, where she begs the dwarf woman (a symbol of adult authority) to let her buy the seed for a dollar. The adult influence turns its head, however, leaving Kay alone with the man to strike her own bargain. The man is the one for whom she has felt strong compassion, pity, loathing, nameless fear, and bonding. The story ends with the two characters bonded by a gaze that leads the girl to give in symbolically to her sexual desire, which is now terrifyingly aroused in her.

To understand this story more fully, it is useful to have some knowledge of the early 1940’s in the United States, when trains were a common mode of transportation. Young women such as Kay who could afford college were typically sheltered and carefully protected from sexual knowledge of any sort. They were often kept in line by superstitious threats. A woman’s vagina was called a “purse,” and mothers warned their daughters to keep their purses shut. In “A Tree of Night,” Kay gives up the entire contents of her purse. As was also true of sheltered young women in that period, she swoons as she lets it go. As the story ends, she is aswim in waters of sexual surrender.