Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1769
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 her head. No longer struggling, Kay sinks into a strange passivity.
“A Tree of Night” raises many questions but provides few answers. The characters are realistically presented, but eccentric, to say the least. Kay is not wholly convincing, yet is still three-dimensional. It is rather the events themselves that appear unlikely and nightmarish, but since Capote delights in paradox, his story cannot be classified as either pure dream or simple reality. Why does Kay not protest? To what extent do she and the mute actually communicate? Is the submission of the young girl carefully planned by the couple? Are the two travelers real passengers who want to do her harm, or can they be projections from Kay’s psyche? Or are they merely two unique strangers to whom Kay attributes much more power than they really have? These ambiguities are the source of both the story’s weaknesses and its strengths; they enrich the encounter and abstract it, but they also leave the reader feeling baffled. Nevertheless, Capote seems to imply that human beings are extremely vulnerable to destructive instincts. Perhaps beginning with a memory or fear from deep within the psyche, one projects it and expands it until it acquires a frightening degree of reality. In fact, it may become a deadly kind of reality. Kay essentially wills herself first into isolation from other passengers and finally into submission. She returns from the observation platform accompanied by the stranger. She chooses neither to change her seat nor to scream. Eventually, she chooses not to struggle. Human beings are delicate creatures, and the power of the “wizard-man” is enough to cause Kay to sink into nightmarish and unnecessary helplessness.
The mysterious realm of dream can invade the workaday world and then consume it. This is precisely what happens in “Master Misery” when Sylvia leaves her hometown of Easton to stay with married friends who live in New York City. Soon she becomes frustrated with her daily routine and her “namby-pamby, bootsytotsy” friends. Hoping to earn money to find her own apartment, Sylvia overhears a conversation in the Automat. As unlikely as it sounds, a certain Mr. Revercomb purchases dreams. Intrigued, Sylvia visits his Fifth Avenue brownstone and discovers that Mr. Revercomb does indeed purchase dreams for cash. As she continues to visit his office, events take an unfortunate turn. The more Sylvia sees him, the more he seems eccentric, even unnatural. One time as she whispers her dream, Mr. Revercomb bends forward to brush her ear with his lips, apparently in a sexual approach.
Sylvia becomes so obsessed with selling her dreams that everything else in her life loses significance. She cuts off communication with her married friends, quits her office job, and rents a dingy studio apartment. Her only friend is Oreilly, a former clown whom she meets in Mr. Revercomb’s waiting room. They have much in common, for Oreilly used to sell his dreams also, but now Mr. Revercomb has no use for them. Although he spends most of his time drunk, Oreilly has the foresight to warn his new companion against the man he calls the Master of Misery, who is so adept at convincing people that parting with a dream is worth five dollars. He explains to Sylvia that she must not lose her independence or her private world of memory and dream, and he compares Mr. Revercomb with the demon of childhood nightmare, the ominous figure who haunted the trees, chimneys, attics, and graveyards of make-believe. Like the mute in “A Tree of Night,” Revercomb is “a thief and a threat,” for after he appropriates one’s dreams, it is a short passage to one’s subconscious and one’s soul.
Sylvia’s life contracts to unhappy proportions. She moves from Revercomb’s waiting room back to Oreilly, her waiting companion, who commiserates with her shrinking self before consuming the liquor she buys with her dream-money. He does, however, advise her to ask Revercomb for her dreams back, provided that she gradually returns the money over a period of time. Sylvia agrees, for her life has become miserable and isolated, but this is a Faustian story, and what was spent cannot be retrieved. Revercomb informs Sylvia that under no circumstances would he return what she has sold and, besides, he has already used them up. Walking home in the falling snow, Sylvia acknowledges that she is no longer her own master and has no individuality; soon she will not have even Oreilly, who will go his own way. Thinking she used Revercomb, it turns out that he has used her, and now they are inseparable—until he discards her as he did Oreilly. The story concludes as Sylvia overhears footsteps following behind. There are two boys, who have followed her from the park and continue to do so. Sylvia is frightened, but like Kay in “A Tree of Night,” she becomes passive and submissive, for there is “nothing left to steal.”
As in much of Capote’s short fiction, the individual tacitly gives a stranger enormous power. Once Sylvia abdicates full responsibility for herself and enters Revercomb’s world, she becomes vulnerable and he becomes omniscient. Gradually she is emptied of friends, an orderly routine, ambition, desire, and, finally, of self-possession. The reader can never be sure who Revercomb is or what he does with dreams, but Sylvia, not the Master of Misery, is the focus of interest. She allows him to create her misery, leaving her with no one, not even her former self.
Capote’s early work especially makes use of the gothic tradition, but because the details remain realistic and controlled, the mysterious elements are subtle and therefore even more insidious. The “wizard-man” is Capote’s archetype—the mute in “A Tree of Night,” Mr. Revercomb in “Master Misery,” the young girl in “Miriam,” Mr. Destronelli in “The Headless Hawk.” This figure transforms the actual world of the protagonist, usually in undesirable and irreversible ways. Whether the encounter with this stranger is a final retreat into narcissism or a submission to a purely external presence may not be clarified, but the fragility of the human psyche is all too clear.