Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The overriding theme of “The Ugliest House in the World” is responsibility—how it is met and how it is shirked. Before the action of the story begins, the narrator defines “ash cash”—a slang term used by the narrator and his colleagues for a special payment by the hospital to physicians for signing a cremation order. The hospital administration prefers cremation to burial because the impossibility of exhumation, in the case of questions about the cause of death, protects the hospital from any embarrassing discoveries. The special payment is, according to the narrator, for taking “responsibility.” Although “ash cash” is not mentioned again and is not an element in the action of the story, this early and specific reference to it informs everything that follows.

There is also the issue of the father’s severance pay. After thirty-five years of work for the same company and just before being eligible to collect his pension, he is laid off with a single cash payment. Like the hospital paying its “ash cash,” the father’s employer buys its way out of its responsibility. In another case of shirked responsibility, the father of the dead child abandoned the pregnant mother at the age of sixteen. Finally, the local men at the funeral confront the narrator and his father about their responsibility in Gareth’s death.

Both the hospital and the father’s employer are able to deflect responsibility with monetary payments, and...

(The entire section is 569 words.)