The Widow's Son Summary
by Mary Lavin

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Widow's Son Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Widow's Son Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “The Widow’s Son,” the storyteller presents two versions of the same story, with different endings. A poor, illiterate widow in an isolated village has one son who is her “pride and joy,” “the meaning of her life,” but when he is fourteen and about to reward her sacrifices and her hope by winning a scholarship, he dies in an accident outside their home. The boy is cycling home, faster and faster down a steep hill, and at the bottom he swerves to avoid one of his mother’s hens. The mother is dismayed at the absurdity of the event and simply asks, “Why did he put the price of a hen above the price of his own life?” Her neighbors try to comfort her with “There, now.” Her question and their response may imply that the event is beyond comprehension, as if it must simply be accepted as fate; nevertheless, the mother’s cry reveals her impatience and irritation with a human error, her son’s poor judgment when he swerved.

Earlier in the story, the widow was sketched as a person who had not only accommodated herself to her limited circumstances but also had triumphed over them. Her poverty is compounded by nature, but she is not fatalistic, and by her own industry she has made her small patch of land as productive as a larger farm. Her fierce will to make the best of her situation seems to achieve her triumph until the absurd accident ends everything.

There is a suggestion, however, that this is a story with a form of cruel justice. Perhaps she is too self-centered in her pursuits, too arrogant in the face of a fate that has already made her a widow. She tries to conceal her obsessive love for her son with a gruff exterior, as if she fears the ridicule of her neighbors for the single-mindedness of her devotion. Nor does she discuss her hopes with her son; instead, she threatens him and tries to encourage him to fulfill her goals by making him fearful. Her neighbors, who know her character well, seem to conclude that it is the boy’s fear of her that brought him to his death.

This suggestion, that she has been blinded in her dealings with her son by the harsh persona that conceals her sentimental nature, is made explicit in the second version of the story. It begins in the same way as the first and “in many respects . . . is the same as the old.” In the conversation between the widow and the old man as they await the son, she denies “in disgust” the suggestion that she has doted on the boy and spoiled him, a “ewe lamb.” As if to prove the truth of her denial, when Packy kills the hen...

(The entire section is 702 words.)