“A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” is a story-within-a-story, that is, the old man’s tale is framed by the dramatic situation involving the boy, Leo, and the bleak café. Here, however, the frame does not merely serve as a technical device to justify the old man’s narrative; rather, the two stories complement and reinforce each other. Although the tale of betrayal and lost love serves as the centerpiece of the story, an equal amount of space is given over to the action within the café: The boy shifts in his seat, the man lowers his head, Leo prepares food with characteristic stinginess. Both stories are about the failure of human sympathy, and the fact that the old man is unable to find a wholly sympathetic listener makes the story doubly tragic.
Unlike most of McCullers’s work, “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” is not set specifically in the South; indeed, no specific locale is mentioned. The two principal characters are unnamed, nor is any indication given of the date or of the season. This deliberate indeterminacy lends a chilling universality to the story, transforming it from a story about a tired old man’s ramblings to a sort of allegory about the limitations of love.