Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 461 words.)