Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560
Purdy’s work draws much of its impact through understatement and implication. He presents little visual description but conveys vivid images through his use of metaphor. Although Ethel never actually strikes Paul in the story, its details strongly suggest that she has often locked him in the basement for punishment and that she has been physically abusive. When Ethel jerks Paul toward her by his pajamas, he pleads for her not to hurt him. She pulls his hair, and Paul winces when she raises her hand. He is apprehensive at the thought of being punished, but being sent to the basement is even more terrifying to him. That Paul is neglected is reflected in his unmended nightshirt and the strange excitement that he feels when he hears Ethel talk about him on the phone.
Paul is afraid of his mother, yet each character perceives the other as distant and even nonhuman. To Paul, Ethel is a monster; to Ethel, Paul is an animal and a burden. Purdy often describes Paul in terms of sick, starving, scared animals. Paul debases himself by pathetically petting the fur on his mother’s slippers to persuade her to let him keep the photos. At the end of the story, when he goes completely mad, Paul hisses like a trapped animal. There is, Purdy tells the reader, no chance of bringing him back.
Ethel is described in equally unattractive images, often demoniac, involving fire and smoke. When she takes some of the photos from him, she tells him that she will burn them. She then heads toward the basement while Paul clutches her legs and shrieks wretchedly. Ethel recoils at his touch, feeling as if a mouse were crawling under her clothes. Threatening to send Paul away to a mental institution as was his Aunt Grace, Ethel looks down at Paul crying pitifully at her feet, stroking her furry house slippers. She demands that he throw the pictures in the furnace, but after a brief period in which his fear quiets him, the boy starts running around the room in panic. His voice is strange to both of them, and unusual gurgling sounds seem to come from his lungs.
As Ethel throws pictures into the fire, she turns to look at Paul, who is crouched over the pictures like a threatened, wounded animal. Her bathrobe smells of smoke; her face is lighted by the fiery furnace. Further, any suggestions of tenderness in Ethel are always qualified as being menacing or false. The candy boxes are symbolic of what the photos signify to Paul. Literally Paul is starving, as he will not eat; he is emaciated and pale. Metaphorically starving for affection, he is getting sustenance only from what he keeps in the candy boxes. Because his mother will not nurture him, he seeks his father’s love. Paul’s attempt to swallow the pictures completes this metaphor.
The story’s omniscient point of view allows the reader to see the isolation of both Paul and Ethel from each other—she in repugnance, he in terror. They are strangers as well as antagonists. Their communication is infrequent and fraught with tension. Ethel’s language is full of nuances that confuse and frighten Paul. He does understand, however, that when she says, “All right for you,” Ethel is indicating that any attempt at communication is abruptly halted.
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