When the Light Gets Green Analysis
by Robert Penn Warren

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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The cluster of images attracted to the color in the title of this story creates a peculiarly appropriate ground for the tale of memory told here. Three images are particularly important. The first is the green light of the title, though it is not met again until late in the story. It is, literally, a natural phenomenon anticipating the onset of a hailstorm, but framed as it is by the other two images, it becomes a fitting portent of Mr. Barden’s death. The second image is the mirror that opens the story and is reintroduced after the hailstorm: “the wavy green mirror, which in his always shadowy room reflected things like deep water riffled by a little wind.” Later, as the narrator waits in his grandfather’s room after the old man’s stroke, he notices again “the mirror, which was green and wavy like water.” This green mirror becomes an emblem of Mr. Barden’s life with its depths of unhelpful, even inaccurate, memory, and its likeness to water lends it further depth—the depth of the frightening and watery world of the unconscious.

The third image is the narrator’s rather than his grandfather’s, the green of the cedar boughs where he listens to poetry and stories of the Civil War: “I lay on my back on the ground . . . and looked upside down into the cedar tree where the limbs were tangled and black-green like big hairy fern fronds with the blue sky all around, while he said some poetry.” Again, his grandfather had told “how the dead men looked in the river bottoms in winter, and I lay on my back on the grass, looking up in the thick cedar limbs, and thought how it was to be dead.” In this third image, the grandfather’s long look downward into the wastes of memory becomes his grandson’s upward and not yet frightened gaze into what any human being can expect of the future: at best something tangled and at last something dead.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Blotner, Joseph. Robert...

(The entire section is 479 words.)