From The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Katherine Anne Porter’s greatest stories – “Flowering Judas,” “Noon Wine,” “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” – are subtle works in the imagist style. Her writing was influenced by the leftist Mexican artists and thinkers, including Diego Rivera, whom she encountered during her time there in the 1920s. Born in Texas, Porter spent time working as a ghost writer in New York City, an experience that is fictionalized in her brief 1928 story “Theft.” The piece, while not reaching the lofty heights of her best short work, nevertheless operates as a microcosm of the author’s approach and technique.
Told mostly in flashback, the story centres on an anonymous female narrator who emerges from a morning bath to find her purse missing. The scene is set in a series of brief, elliptical sentences:
She had the purse in her hand when she came in. Standing in the middle of the floor, holding her bathrobe around her and trailing a damp towel in one hand, she surveyed the immediate past and remembered everything clearly. Yes, she had opened the flap and spread it out on the bench after she had dried the purse with her handkerchief.
The next paragraph then flashes back to the “immediate past” – the previous night – to fill in the gaps of how the nameless protagonist made her way home through the rain after what may have been a date with a man named Camilo. She has forty cents in her purse and so decides to spend five cents on a token for the elevated train, but is stopped by the appearance of Roger (another possible beau?), who insists on springing for a cab. When she reaches her apartment building, she is waylaid by her neighbour, Bill, who demands she come in and have a drink. Bill, it turns out, owes the protagonist money for her contribution to a drama he’s had mounted, but he refuses to pay her what she’s owed. She arrives back at her apartment and the story flashes forward to the following morning and her suspicion that the building’s janitress is responsible for the theft of her purse while she was bathing.
A brief summary of the events in the story does not do justice to Porter’s symbolic prose and refined sensibility. Take, for example, the various hats that appear in the course of the narrative. Camilo, we are told, wears a hat “of a pretty biscuit shade, for it never occurred to him to buy anything of a practical colour.” This is suggestive of the man’s station in life, every bit as much as the protagonist’s observation that “she knew he was almost as poor as she was.” It is raining when Camilo drops the protagonist at the train station, and his hat is becoming drenched. The woman is suitably distressed: “he had put it on for the first time and the rain was spoiling it.” The clear implication is that he has worn the hat to impress his companion, a fact that is telling given how little we otherwise know about him.
Camilo’s headgear is also contrasted with that of Eddie, one of the woman’s former lovers. Eddie’s hats “always seemed to be precisely seven years old and as if they had been quite purposely left out in the rain, and yet they sat with a careless and incidental rightness on Eddie.” The difference in character between Camilo and Eddie is profound in the way the former tries to impress with a hat that gets destroyed in the rain, while the latter purposely distresses his accessories to look more worn and less expensive than they actually are. In comparison to Eddie, the protagonist thinks, were Camilo to wear a shabby hat, “it would merely be shabby on him, and he would lose his spirits over it.”
When Roger appears to rescue the protagonist from the rain, he exhibits a third character trait, secreting his hat beneath a buttoned-up overcoat.
The ubiquity of the rain in these early passages also highlights character and mood. The woman, we come to realize, is alone, despite her association with numerous men in the story. The unceasing rain serves as an objective correlative, making external the protagonist’s internal state of mind. Nor is it incidental the the key events on her journey home take place at night; this implies romance, of course, but the darkness also tilts in the direction of the woman’s sombre mood and feelings of rejection. These feelings are exemplified when she arrives home and finds a goodbye note from a former beau in her soggy purse. Porter provides snippets of the letter’s contents: “why were you so anxious to destroy … even if I could see you now I would not.”
Even the story’s title operates on multiple levels of meaning. The most obvious refers to the literal theft of the woman’s purse by the janitress. But there are other thefts in the story. The theft of the woman’s commission for her part in writing her neighbour’s play is another obvious one; less obvious are the emotional theft perpetrated by the anonymous letter writer and the theft of the woman’s youth summed up in her confrontation with the janitress about the stolen purse. Also consider the theft of women’s identity and agency, implicit in the fact that the two central female characters – the protagonist and the janitress – are not even given the benefit of proper names. Compare this to the incidental secondary male characters – Camilo, Eddie, Roger – who are bestowed names even when, like Eddie, they never actually appear in the story.
The janitress tells the woman she wants the purse to give as a gift to her niece “who is going on seventeen.” She is “young and needs pretty things,” the janitress says. By contrast, the protagonist, in the janitress’s eyes, is “a grown woman” who has “had [her] chance.” The invocation of the niece’s youth as against the woman’s advancing age is brutal, more so when the protagonist returns to her apartment where she sits alone with her cold coffee, which was hot when she left the room. Here again, Porter deftly illustrates the protagonist’s inner state without resorting to underwhelming exposition or explanation.
One final note on how to read a Katherine Anne Porter story. Writing in the CEA Critic, Charles W. Smith (a teacher, no less!) presumes to find a “flaw” in the opening sentences. The problem, Smith asserts, is that the first sentence of the story is in the simple past, whereas it becomes clear that the woman is recalling events from the previous night, and therefore the sentence should be in the past perfect:
The fault lies with the first sentence of the story: it is in the past tense, but it should be in the past perfect tense. It should read: “She had had the purse in her hand when she came in,” or better yet, “She had had the purse in her hand when she came in the night before.” That would make it clear that the actions described in the first and third sentences of the paragraph occurred prior to the action in the second sentence.
Smith notes that the criticism may seem “petty” or even “pedantic,” but this is by no means the signal problem. The problem – and bear in mind, once again, that Smith is a teacher – is the inability to recognize a free indirect style. The first and third sentences are fairly clearly meant to be in the protagonist’s head, while the second sentence moves away from her consciousness to describe the scene objectively from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. (It helps if one imagines quotation marks around the first and third sentences.) This is a style of narration that has confounded many critics over time, but here it seems especially egregious. Smith – a teacher! – appears entirely innocent of the way in which Porter subtly plays with the psychic distance in her story, an approach that is absolutely integral to the effect she is trying to achieve.
This kind of baldfaced literalism and grammatical pedantry highlights one of the dangers in cursorily or uncritically reading a work of fiction as dense and psychologically acute as Porter’s story.