‘He’ is a post-Southern realistic contemporary short story penned by American writer Katherine Anne Porter. This short story is set in Texas in Porter’s native town, where an unnamed special needs child is often abused, pitied, and ultimately abandoned in a poor institutional home by his family. Katherine Anne Porter differs from the post-Faulkner school of Southern novelists in all her novellas and short stories. Instead, she brings a more cosmopolitan culture and human character to her stories with evocative descriptions. Katherine Anne Porter is a writer of simplicity and poignancy. The stoic short tale of an innocent special needs child is heart-wrenching and, at the same time, highlights the importance of inclusiveness in society and the life of poor cotton farmers in the time of the post-Faulkner period. Other prominent themes mentioned directly and indirectly in this short story is the importance of inclusion in society, Southern American Community life, false pride, selfishness, the changing agrarian society of the South, the tender emotions of the special needs child merely termed as ‘He’ and the disregard of the individuality of children in families of the past who are differently-abled. Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories and novellas are still widely read as contemporary American classics. She is remembered as a precisian and evocative imagery writer, especially seen in her Southern short stories. She is the author of the bestselling and award-winning book Ship of Fools which she published when she was seventy-two years old.
The special needs child is a ten-year-old farm lad. He seems to be autistic by the symptoms he displays, but as Porter’s style is universally inclusive, she does not directly disclose the primary ailment suffered by the child. This could also indicate that in the early twentieth century, Southern farmers and their family members did not think of their special needs children as essential or as individuals with feelings and desires and so merely treated them as a sort of ‘forced’ responsibility given them by the Divine. However, the boy was a helpful lad and probably more useful than the other two older children, namely the girl Emly who wanted to be a schoolteacher but landed up as a waitress, and the boy named Adna, who wished to give up farming and work in a grocery shop. Emly and Adna Whipple were intelligent but did not care to work on their parents’ farm. However, this special needs child was devoted to his parents and helped them out on the farm. He was incredibly confident in handling troublesome and sometimes dangerous farm animals during milking and slaughter. Instead of taking his talent as a plus point, Mr. and Mrs. Whipple regarded this aspect of the boy as abnormal and never praised him for his bravery. They considered his lack of fear to be one of the major signs that he was not like the others and would not realize when he got hurt. This was untrue because the boy did get hurt, not physically as much as psychologically and spiritually when the Whipples packed him off to a sanitorium.
The boy was bulky, tall, and did whatever he was told. He never mixed around with others and was a natural with farm animals. He never questioned his parents when they gave him complex tasks, which speaks highly of him. He respected the farm more than Adna or Emly did, which is evident in how Adna criticizes the farming life in an almost rough voice and how he complained or chickened out of doing a difficult farming task all through his sixteen years with his family. Emly portrayed herself as an intellectual but ultimately showed her true colors when she merely became a waitress waiting on tables at an eating house near the railway station. Mrs. Whipple takes up for her daughter, which is just an eye-wash because the girl was not interested in studies but only in easy money. The older siblings did not know the importance of being a Southern Farmer and taking pride in their Southern Heritage.
Mrs. Whipple was an anxious woman who was always concerned about others’ opinions about their poverty, lifestyle, and how they brought up their special needs child. There is a love-hate relationship of opposites between Mrs. Whipple and her special needs unnamed son. The boy was incapable of showing affection in the usual manner, but he did show his love for his parents by the way:
- He ate his food with relish, and thankfully Mrs. Whipple would always tend to heap his plate up with the best of goodies.
- He brought forth the animals he was asked to bring, like the black piglet sucking on the teat of the wild and ferocious sow or the wild and violent bull whom Mr. Whipple, his father, wanted to tend to.
- The boy was severely hurt while getting the violent bull, yet he pulled the bull stoically by the ring around its nose as if it were a calf. He was ready to risk his life for his parents.
- He never asked for preferential treatment and always stayed out the way of outsiders so as not to upset his parents. This shows great insight on his part. When his maternal uncle, healthy wife, and two boys come to visit, the special needs child remains in the kitchen out of the way of the fun the family was having. However, he was fed heartily by Mrs. Whipple with the best of what they cooked that day.
- He never complained or whined whenever he was overlooked over his other two siblings. That winter, when the family was short of funds, they made the best flannels or warm clothes for Emly and Adna but left the special needs child without even a single blanket for the cold nights. When he was asked to work on the farm that winter, they did not even give him a proper coat to shield his delicate body from the cold; instead, they made him wear a tarpaulin, which is nothing but tarred canvas.
- He fell severely ill but suffered by himself alone in his thoughts until he grew so cold and blue that the doctor had to be called.
- The day the doctor was called a second time because of the child’s epilepsy and was declared to be in a way ‘useless for work anymore’, the selfish and heartless Whipple’s family packed the poor boy off, and that was the only time Mrs. Whipple saw tears coming from the child’s eyes like a waterfall which to her seemed accusatory from a power above because he was incapable of accusing his parents or anyone of anything.
Emly and Adna’s preference to work off the farm indicates the changing Southern rural scene. Adna was determined to make his father understand that money lay in business firms and not in farming anymore. We notice a Faulkner aspect to the text when we see the psychological disturbance in the mind of Mrs. Whipple, who does not know whether to love the special needs child or ill-treat him. At the beginning of the text, it is mentioned that she loved the boy more than her other two children, which was true enough. Yet, there was a sort of tension in her mind regarding the boy that sometimes she tended to overdo her fondness or make unnecessary excuses for him or even physically abuse him. This highlights the tussle in her mind and psyche, which is symbolic of the tussle in many Southern farmers who were not doing well at the time Katherine Porter wrote the story because they were unwilling to be inclusive and were sticking to old-fashioned ways. Mrs. Whipple was always worried that if she did not treat the boy properly, the neighbors would have a lot of nasty words to say about her and the Whipple family. This highlights in a symbolic and literal sense:
- The Christian conscience and ethical Christianity practiced by the people of the South where a special needs child was treated as a gift from God who should be well cared for in keeping with Christian teaching. However, the paradox was that no farmer typically ever wanted such a child, especially when the farm needed an intelligent lad or lass.
- The neighbors indirectly are Mrs. Whipple’s guilty conscience. She would always wonder what they had to say about the way she treated the child. She keeps explaining the situation to herself or her husband, a sign of anxiety and the beginning stages of neurosis.
- Like all small community members, their neighbors gossiped about the Whipple family. They blamed bad blood in the family line and even incest as the reason a special needs child was born. This is ridiculous but something the illiterate continues to do.
Where the story of the piglet is concerned, the boy grabs the suckling piglet from the teat of its ferocious mother, who runs after the boy to save her piglet. The piglet and fierce sow imagery are allegorical to the situation at the end between the special needs child and his mother. Although the sow came to fight for her piglet, Mrs. Whipple would not come forward to save her son from the sanitorium where he could die alone and in pain. The poor boy probably remembered the incident when the sow came to save the piglet and was saddened that his mother did not do the same for him. Probably it was beyond him to accuse with his eyes and tears and remind his mother of the many times he had risked his life fighting the bull, the piglet, the cold, and more. However, for Mrs. Whipple a daily churchgoer, this aspect pricked her conscience. Still, because of the separation of her other two children and her poverty, she was emotionless enough to let this ‘burdensome’ son die a strangers death.
Note in the text the mention of Mrs. Whipple, who otherwise cared about the differently-abled boy, feeling a sense of freedom to know that he would be getting out of her life forever. There is every indication that Emly and Adna got out of the farmhouse because they did not like their differently-abled brother. Mrs. Whipple, through Katherine Anne Porter’s insightful words, indicates that she was feeling free that the child was finally out of her hands. This makes it evident that Mrs. Whipple was treating her differently-abled son as her Cross in life or her burden to carry till death did them part.
The story is now considered mainly historical fiction, though we could still categorize it under contemporary historical fiction. The story is realistic fiction and written meticulously with hidden symbology like William Faulkner, the Southern American writer, used to do. The descriptions of the relationship between Mrs. Whipple and her son called ‘he’ is emotive, tender, and partially lyrical. Katherine Anne Porter, an activist, does a terrific job of bringing out the humanity of these differently-abled children who need our care and support because they are innocent of their circumstances, and we need to reach out to them and change their tears into laughter. Only when we educate, uplift, and include differently-abled and special needs children in our society can we truly consider ourselves a globalized society. Katherine Anne Porter refrains from giving the child a name because this talented boy represents all children we need to reach out to and recognize their individuality. Their individuality may not be easily identifiable, but it is there like this child was for his parents.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this Southern American short story penned by Katherine Anne Porter. I hope to read and review more works by Katherine Anne Porter soon. If you are interested in reading more American classics, you can check out my abridgement of two classic American stories titled The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and Daddy-Long-Legs by author Jean Webster. This is part of my Rare Classics series. If you are interested in including our visually impaired brothers and sisters in reading the literature and data on this blog, you can check out my Braille page. If you are interested in encouraging your wards or students to read the classics, you can check out my award-winning how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. I hope to read and analyze more American fiction and non-fiction soon.
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