Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Padgett Powell is admired and, on occasion, criticized for his irreverent style. In “Trick or Treat,” there is none of the overblown lyricism that sometimes spoils his effects. Here Powell’s prose is precise and controlled. As always, his visual images are effective; the pumpkin head above the pickets is a good example. Typically, too, his dialogue catches the clipped, slangy cadences of everyday speech. Moreover, his characters’ mental gymnastics, with all their hesitations and reversals, strike the reader as very real.

Perhaps even more interesting is the author’s use of symbolism. Early in “Trick or Treat,” Mrs. Hollingsworth concocts a capricious list that she believes sums up the South and accounts for her unhappiness. Halfway through the story, she decides that Halloween belongs on that list, if only because it makes parents, and especially mothers, the slaves of custom and the servants of their children. With Halloween approaching, it is not surprising that Mrs. Hollingsworth should at first see a resemblance between Jimmy’s head and a pumpkin. At that point, to her he is just another child. It is significant, however, that once she begins to see him as an interesting individual, the comparison disappears.

Because they reflect the fluctuations in Mrs. Hollingsworth’s mind, the references to Halloween in “Trick or Treat” are more suggestive than explicit. However, it is clear exactly what the author means by the allusion to the mythological Orpheus in the final sentence of the story. The god was bringing his wife back from the dead, but he had been warned not to look back. Sadly, he did, and he lost her. Mrs. Hollingsworth does not intend to make the same mistake. When she becomes Janice Halsey for the second time, she knows that she will not be recapturing the past but moving forward into a second youth. As long as she does not look back, either to her distant youth or to her recent past, she will be able to hold her lover, and for a while she will be all right.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Generation Y
Generation Y is an American cultural reference to people born between the late 1970s through the 1990s....

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

“Trick or Treat” is set in the contemporary American South, although the specific state and city are not...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

  • 1990s: Following the recession of the 1970s and the 1980s, the United States experiences an economic boom. This boom...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

How does your family celebrate Halloween? How is Halloween celebrated in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and other observant...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

City Life (1970) is Donald Barthelme’s third book of short stories. Barthelme was Powell’s writing mentor when Powell was studying...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Boyle, T. Coraghessan, “A Better Class of Fools,” in New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, p....

(The entire section is 423 words.)