Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In this story, Morley Callaghan focuses on a rather commonplace and distressing experience during which a young man’s character begins to take a definite moral form. The boy’s petty thievery, false bravado, and emotional dependency are highlighted early in the story. There is little to suggest the possibility of genuine moral growth except for the boy’s capacity for honest self-evaluation when he is first confronted by his employer, and his ready admission of guilt to his mother.

Alfred does mature, however, and it is important to recognize that his moral development owes very little to the fear and shame that suffuse him on being caught and imagining his punishment or his mother’s contempt for him. Fear and shame prompt him at first to indulge in some defensive role-playing, and these emotions quickly dissipate once the immediate threat of arrest is removed. In this interlude of relaxation from tension, however, Alfred is surprised by an insight that transforms him.

When he discovers his mother alone and vulnerable, he sees for the first time the hard path she has walked “all of the years of her life.” This capacity for responding deeply and fully to the imagined life of another is, Callaghan implies, the beginning of maturity. Thus, for Callaghan, maturity depends essentially on a sense of solidarity with others as opposed to a feeling of anarchic individualism, which sees others as simply obstructions or conveniences. All Alfred’s anger, shame, despair, and elation earlier in the evening subside eventually, allowing his innate capacity for sympathetic identification with another to reach expression. This capacity may seem as commonplace as the crime that Alfred commits, but Callaghan convincingly suggests that it is at the root of the moral imagination.


(Short Stories for Students)

Motherly Love
Mrs. Higgins displays a mother’s devotion to her son. Her devotion is so great she is able to overcome the...

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