Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

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James Purdy first published “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” in a collection of short stories called The Color of Darkness (1957)—a title suggesting that its stories are about emptiness and failed relationships. This story’s theme is loneliness, which is reflected in both Ethel’s and Paul’s feelings of isolation from each other and from the rest of society. Ethel is an embittered widow who rarely even mentions Paul’s father. She feels that her days of hard work with the public and standing on her feet all day are surpassed in misery only by her evenings spent caring for an ill child, yet she actually spends that time complaining to a friend on the telephone. The story’s chief concern, however, is the alienation of Paul, who is denied the love that he needs from his mother and is even robbed of the surrogate that he seeks in the old photographs of his dead father. At an intense moment in his confrontation with his mother, his fear emanates from the idea that he and Ethel are the only two people in the world.

When Ethel charges Paul with preferring his dead father to his living mother, the irony is that Paul’s father is more alive to him than his cold, uncaring mother. Paul’s efforts to annoy his mother by looking at his father’s photos while she talks about him on the phone are desperate attempts to construct the only family unity he has ever known.

The title of the story reflects the story’s use of language as a marker of these failures of communication. The man to whom Ethel always refers as “your father” differs greatly from the man in the pictures whom Paul comes to think of as “Daddy.” Paul is frightened by her calling him a “little man,” not knowing what she means by it but feeling that it forebodes more suffering for him. Paul cannot articulate why he is so drawn to the photos because he does not understand his own needs, the real nature of his illness. He craves love, but because he has never been shown any, he cannot explain to his mother what he seeks. Ethel insists that Paul not call her “Mama,” because it makes her feel old, yet the clear implication is that she also does not want to admit that Paul is her child. When she looks at him she is revolted and cannot believe that he is her son. This denial develops into an inability even to see him as human. Indeed, she herself is dehumanizing him, robbing him of his humanity, by refusing to show him any love and by destroying the only source of love he has found in his life.