The Widow's Son

by Mary Lavin

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Last Updated July 12, 2023.

“The Widow's Son” is a short story set in an isolated Irish village that tells the story of a poor, illiterate widow and her son, Packy. The unnamed widow is industrious and works hard to provide for her son using her limited means; she raises chickens, forages for mushrooms, and spends back-breaking hours toiling to make her small farm profitable. Her hard work has made her gruff and cold; although she loves her son dearly, she does not know how to express her affection, which ultimately leads to disaster.

The short story explores the cascading effects of a single decision, asking what might happen if even a single event played out differently. Lavin begins by explaining that the widow is illiterate and uneducated, so she wishes to provide Packy with a better life. Her son, fourteen and on the cusp of adulthood, shows much promise, and the widow takes quiet pride in his accomplishments. 

After sketching out the details of their life together, Lavin tells the story of Packy’s death: on his way home from school one day, Packy is riding his bicycle down the hill to their home. He is going too fast, and when one of his mother’s hens gets in his way, he swerves to avoid it. Packy is thrown from the bike, and the high-speed crash leads to his death. 

The grieving widow mourns her son, but her sorrow takes on an oddly accusatory tone. While bemoaning the randomness of the tragedy, she asks: “Why didn’t he put on the brakes going down one of the worst hills in the country? Why did he put the price of a hen above the price of his own life?” These questions reveal her love for her son but also her willingness to find him at fault, blaming him for this terrible accident. 

However, Lavin questions what the family’s life might have looked like if events had unfolded differently, wondering what might have happened if Packy had, as his mother wished, not swerved and instead hit the hen. When constructing this hypothetical, she imagines the scene again; this time, Packy does not swerve. He hits the hen, sending a cloud of feathers into the air. A crowd gathers around the scene and watches in awe as the widow, terrified for her son and enraged by what she sees as his carelessness, picks up the hen’s corpse and beats him with it. 

Packy attempts to defend himself to his mother, explaining that he was riding so fast because he was excited to come home and share his exciting news: he has earned a scholarship and will be able to continue his schooling. The widow is secretly elated; she is proud of her son’s accomplishments and efforts, wishing only to hold and praise him. However, she feels that she must not appear weak in front of the crowd of neighbors, so she continues to verbally berate her son, undermining his accomplishments.

The widow leads Packy into the house, quietly pleased by his efforts and happy that he is safe; her son, however, has no idea of his mother’s true feelings and believes her words, certain that she considers him a failure and a waste of resources. The widow feels guilty but does not recant her words, knowing in her heart how she truly feels. In the morning, however, she awakens to find Packy gone, having left her—and his scholarship—behind to pursue blue-collar work and repay his mother for all she has done for him. He never returns, and the letters filled with money he sends her never have a return address.

(This entire section contains 725 words.)

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The widow leads Packy into the house, quietly pleased by his efforts and happy that he is safe; her son, however, has no idea of his mother’s true feelings and believes her words, certain that she considers him a failure and a waste of resources. The widow feels guilty but does not recant her words, knowing in her heart how she truly feels. In the morning, however, she awakens to find Packy gone, having left her—and his scholarship—behind to pursue blue-collar work and repay his mother for all she has done for him. He never returns, and the letters filled with money he sends her never have a return address.

In both scenarios, the widow’s gruff demeanor and inability to properly show her emotions result in the loss of her son. Lavin posits the widow’s isolation was born of her very nature, as if her desire for social status, refusal to praise her son, and desire to earn success by whatever means necessary could only ever lead to the same results. These two scenarios speak to a broader existential question, explaining that perhaps the answer to the widow’s plaintive “why” is simply that these events and their results were simply fated, destined to happen in some form or another because of who the widow was and how she lived.

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