Monday, October 26, 2009

A Town Gone Wrong?

Wide-open hours on Sunday afternoon, I pick up Katherine Anne Porter's short stories and read "Maria Concepcion." This story features a young couple in Mexico, expecting their first child, a North American archaeologist, the "other woman," and a midwife. Over the course of the story, the husband runs away to fight the revolution with the other woman, the archeologist consistently condones the husbands infidelity and eventual desertion of the army, and on the return of the couple, the wife stabs to death the other woman, who has just given birth to the husband's child. The wife, having lost her own infant, takes this baby to raise; all involved conspire to thwart the police from arresting the wife, including the midwife who just delivered that infant. As Porter's supporters have often noted, there's a world of complexity in a short story, an economical and potent piece of fiction.

Here's my concern: what am I, the reader, meant to feel about these people? Not one of them earned my sympathy or respect. There was no remorse on anyone's part. I extrapolate the future for the couple and the child into one which will see the husband unfaithful again. Will the wife kill all her rivals? I know that a slice of life has to contain people who do bad things; much of our literature is an oblique morality tale about the dangers of human relationships. This tale is unrelenting. And written by a woman who knew Mexico as her "beloved second home." What was there to love, if we accept her story as emotionally valid? As a writer, Porter has lodged this one in my memory, a good thing. As a reader, I'm stymied, pondering, questioning, also a good thing. But I wish someone would tell me about Porter's view of justice, morality, compassion--all missing in her characters.

1 comment:

Dapper Fellow said...

Ah, Kate! You never disappoint me. The absence of “justice,” “morality” and “compassion” in Porter’s fiction is the result of her horror of the bourgeoisie’s attraction to melodrama. The attraction of the bourgeoisie to melodrama—which is the literary vehicle for “justice,” “morality” and “compassion—is what caused Mencken to opine: “Morality is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that 99% of them are wrong.” You might want to ask Tom Joad his opinion about the presence, or lack thereof, of “justice,” “morality” and “compassion” on the American literary landscape.