Themes

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

One important theme in the story is the Dorsets’ attachment to the trappings of refinement, combined with their reduced circumstances and related difficulty in maintaining their preferred standards. The symbol of the painting to which the title refers is a crucial aspect of that theme. More generally, the key themes are the 20th-century decay of old Southern society and, closely related, the hypocrisy of those who claim to uphold those antiquated values. In terms of genre and style, the story is heavily indebted to the Southern Gothic genre, most obviously the works of William Faulkner.

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The author describes the reproduction of the 16th-century painting by Bronzino, “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time,” which hung in the Dorsets’ home. Rather than a fine-quality reproduction of this Renaissance masterpiece, however, their version is simply a page torn out of a book or magazine. Someone had thumbtacked it to the wall. While the content of the painting, which has nude figures kissing, is somewhat erotic, it is also an allegory of the passage of time, with a fiercely scowling face to one side. The children who visited the Dorset home during their parties were embarrassed if caught staring at the nudes depicted, but for the author, the emphasis on fleeting time is equally important.

The unnamed narrator, apparently born and raised in the West Vesey, an elite neighborhood he or she describes, takes a long while to get to the point. Much of the first half is spent describing, and deriding, the Dorsets, an elderly brother and sister who lead solitary, eccentric lives in the town. Toward the end of the story, however, the reader learns more about the family, including the fact that they had originally come from the North and had taken awhile to achieve their prominent place in Southern society. The resentment of the Southern narrator toward these carpetbagger-descendants thus makes more sense. The narrator makes it clear that only the cherished need for social status had made the townspeople tolerate the couple’s odd ways—including such things as not having servants—for the sake of the annual ball to which all the” good families” sent their children. Only the actions of an outsider, a boy from the wrong side of town, could have propitiated the collapse of the tradition. The others continued to cling to this custom even though they know it was an empty symbol. The rift between the brother and sister involved, Ned and Emily, likewise stands for the break-up of the Southern way of life.

Peter Taylor, originally from Tennessee, is often called “the chronicler of the lost Nashville.” Writing decades later than Faulkner and primarily focusing on urban elites, his work echoes classic Southern Gothic by its focus on the margins of acceptable social behavior and creepy atmospheric elements. In this story, these aspects are shown in the implicitly incestuous relationship between the elderly brother and sister and the decayed, former elegance of their home. Links to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” are the girl’s name and the mysteriously hidden contents of the Dorsets’ bedroom.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290

On the landing of the stairway to the Dorsets’ ballroom is a small color print of Il Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, torn out of a book and tacked to the wall. Its presence gains significance because of the story’s title. The original is a Mannerist work depicting allegorical figures listed in the title: Venus and Cupid engaged in sly flirtation with each other, a desiccated shape of Time prophesying the end of Folly. It does very well as an illustration of Alfred and Louisa, with their faintly incestuous devotion to each other and their staunch refusal to acknowledge the passing of time. It is this unhealthy and unproductive relationship that poses a threat to the children of Chatham—not the Dorsets’ simpleminded snobbery. The dancing parties seem designed to encourage others to follow their pattern, and perhaps the children’s joke was born of a not-wholly-realized sense of the danger. Perhaps, also, that accounts ultimately for the breach between Ned and Emily.

Some readers see the story as an allegory of the decay of southern gentility, a Faulknerian theme, but that social significance seems too heavy for the tone of this narrative. There is obvious social criticism in the mockery of Vesey Place manners, but the mockery contains more amusement than disgust. The narrator is still in and of the society he describes; he sees past the facade and acknowledges changes in the new generation, but he has not rejected either Chatham or its old-fashioned values. He seems more concerned with individual people than with the social scene as a whole—somewhat sorry for the Dorsets though glad that the children are free of them, forever puzzled and a bit unhappy about consequences for the Meriwethers.

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