The Widow's Son

by Mary Lavin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702

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.

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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.

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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 rather than himself, she attacks him, beating him over the head with the bleeding hen. This display of anger, which becomes a self-conscious display in front of her neighbors, compromises her; when he reveals that he was rushing home to tell her that he has won a scholarship, she wants to hug him, but she “thought how the crowd would look at each other and nod and snigger,” and she does not want to “please them” by demonstrating her joy. Trapped by her own harsh, public persona and angry at the perversity of the situation that has denied her the social respect that the scholarship should have brought her, she begins to attack Packy, to humiliate him, even as she inwardly grieves at the price she is paying for maintaining her pride. The story ends this time with the disappearance of the son, who never returns to her, although he does forward her money as repayment for her sacrifices.

The storyteller presents this second version as if it were the product of the neighbors’ gossip and secret speculation, for it reflects their shrewd sense of the woman’s character. The narrator now generalizes in the form of a moral, which is usual at the end of a fable or, perhaps, a folktale: that “the path that is destined for us . . . no matter how tragic . . . is better than the tragedy we bring upon ourselves.”

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