Truman Capote’s stories are best known for their mysterious, dreamlike occurrences. As his protagonists try to go about their ordinary business, they meet with unexpected obstacles—usually in the form of haunting, enigmatic strangers. Corresponding to some childhood memory or to someone the protagonist once knew, these people take on huge proportions and cause major changes in the character’s life. The central figures of these stories are usually people who have left their hometowns, who travel, or who live alone, for they seem most vulnerable to chance encounters. Their isolation gives them the time, and their loneliness gives them the motivation to see these experiences through to their conclusions—and often with great risk.
Capote was a careful craftsman. His words are meticulously chosen for their evocative power, and, at their best, they create highly charged images and symbols. His descriptions of the seasons or weather further heighten the effects he wants to create. Snow, rain, dusk, and sunlight serve to separate the particular setting from a larger landscape, thus reinforcing the self-reflexive nature of his stories. Attics, kitchens, one-room walk-ups, and isolated apartments are typical settings that also provide sequestered settings. The atmosphere, location, characters, and events present a touching but often chilling and ominous beauty. The combination of reality and dream also produces an eerie beauty.
“A Tree of Night”
In “A Tree of Night,” one of his finest stories, Kay is a young, attractive student returning to college after the funeral of an uncle. It is late on a winter night, bare and icy, when she boards the train from the deserted platform. Taking the only available seat, she sits opposite an odd-looking couple. The woman is in her fifties, with a huge head and a dwarfish body, while the man is mute, with marblelike eyes and an expressionless face. Although Kay is initially polite, she hopes to be left alone, but the woman wants company and conversation. Kay tries to remain distant, but the woman and man are persistent and aggressive. Without any warning, the man reaches toward Kay and strokes her cheek. Her reaction is immediate but confused: She is repelled by the boldness of the gesture while, at the same time, she is touched by the delicacy.
From this point on, Kay seems to view the man and woman as harbingers of danger. Capote’s style remains realistic and his tone objective, but the couple behave as though they are part of Kay’s nightmare. The woman talks endlessly, always wanting a response from her listener. She forces Kay to drink liquor with her and even grabs her wrist. As in a nightmare, Kay wants to scream and awaken the other passengers, but no sounds come out. Trying to escape from the woman’s irritating voice, Kay has a reverie as she stares into the void face of the man, and suddenly his face and her uncle’s dead face blend. She sees, or imagines that she sees, a shared secret and a stillness. This association of the stranger with someone from her past is deadly, preparing the reader for the end of the story.
By degrees, the man assumes control over Kay. He takes from his pocket a peach seed and fondles it gently. The woman insists that he only wants Kay to purchase it as a good-luck charm, but Kay is frightened, interpreting his action as some kind of warning. Trying to avoid the man, she leaves her seat for the observation platform and fresh air, but soon she senses someone beside her and knows that it must be the man. Now, without the distracting annoyance of the woman, Kay understands why she finds him so threatening. Unable to speak or to hear, he is like her uncle, dead, and the dead can haunt. She further recognizes him as a figure from her childhood dreams, the boogeyman, the “wizard-man,” the mysterious personage that could bring alive “terrors that once, long ago, had hovered above her like haunted limbs on a tree of night.” Kay’s submission is unquestionable, but precisely what she submits to is left ambiguous. Together, she and the man return to their seats, and she gives him money for the peach seed. Then the woman takes possession of Kay’s whole purse and, although Kay wants to shout, she does not. Finally the woman takes Kay’s raincoat and pulls it “like a shroud” over...
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