By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘He’ is a short story by Katherine Anne Porter, originally published in New Masses in 1927 and then reprinted in Porter’s collection Flowering Judas and Other Stories in 1930. The story is about a poor American family. The mother, Mrs Whipple, loves her second son best of all: a boy who is identified only as ‘He’.
This story about parenthood, poverty, and guilt invites a number of different interpretations, so let’s take a closer look at Porter’s story. Before we offer an analysis of its meaning and themes, however, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.
‘He’: plot summary
The Whipples are a family who find it hard to make ends meet. The mother, Mrs Whipple, loves her second son most of all. He has learning difficulties (the narrator describes him as ‘simple-minded’), and behind the family’s backs, people mutter about this, talking about how the boy is bearing the ‘sins of the fathers’, although they always say more positive, flattering things about him when talking to the family’s faces.
Mrs Whipple constantly talks about this boy, who is always referred to using the pronouns ‘He’ or ‘Him’: never by his name, which we are never told. The son, ‘He’, never seems to hurt Himself: a trait which the preacher attributes to the boy’s godliness. This pleases Mrs Whipple, although Mr Whipple believes it’s because the boy lacks enough sense to know when to be scared of injury, and this gives Him a certain invincibility. Mr Whipple is clearly less fixated on Him than his wife, who clearly favours Him over their other children.
Mrs Whipple receives a letter from her brother telling her that he and his family plan to visit, so she sets about slaughtering one of the pigs for their meal. She enlists Him to help her to separate the pig from its mother, but when she slits the animal’s throat, He runs off.
When Mrs Whipple’s brother arrives with his family, she serves the pig in a lavish dinner, while He doesn’t sit in the dining room with them but eats His meal separately. Mrs Whipple’s brother doesn’t comment on this, but when Mr Whipple remarks that her brother may have been secretly thinking how odd it was, Mrs Whipple grows upset that people will think He isn’t treated as well as her other children.
The winter is hard and cold, and the family’s financial difficulties intensify. Then He falls ill, and the doctor warns His parents that He isn’t as strong as He appears to be. When He recovers, Mrs Whipple sends Him to fetch the bull to breed their cows, but when He is leading the bull home she worries that the bull will attack her son. She frets and prays for His safe return home.
One of the daughters, Emly, gets a job as a waitress, and that brings in some money for the struggling Whipples. But while He is helping Mr Whipple on the farm, He slips on the ice and has a seizure, and ends up being confined to bed, experiencing further seizures. The doctor tells Mr and Mrs Whipple that there is nothing else they can do except send Him to the County Home for (palliative) care.
But Mrs Whipple refuses to send her child off to be tended by strangers, because she is worried about what people will say about her. But when Mr Whipple insists, partly because they cannot afford to keep looking after Him and paying for the doctor, she relents and lets Him go, though she keeps telling herself that it’s only until He gets better. As she is taking Him away, she realises he is crying, and believes He understands where they are taking Him and what it means.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) wrote just one novel and fewer than thirty short stories, yet she is regarded as an important twentieth-century American writer, with ‘He’ among her most celebrated and critically acclaimed works. An important theme of Porter’s work is the search for meaning in a modern and increasingly materialist world.
‘He’ is an important story in this regard because the capitalised pronoun ‘He’ is likely to put us in mind of Jesus Christ, since God and Jesus are often referred to as He or Him. And Porter’s ‘He’, like Jesus, is poorly understood by those around Him and doomed to a life of suffering (including, we surmise, an early death).
In a Christian interpretation of Porter’s story, Mrs Whipple’s favouritism towards Him reveals not just maternal pity and a sense of guilt (she loves Him best because He’s had to endure more, and it’s natural, if nonsensical, for a parent to blame herself for her son’s mental disability) but also a pious attitude of devotion in the face of opposition and even ridicule from others (such as their neighbours and even, to an extent, Mr Whipple).
However, how devoted to her son’s welfare Mrs Whipple really is may be open to doubt. She talks repeatedly about how worried she is about what other people will say about her if He comes to any harm, or if they treat Him in a certain way (such as sending Him to the County Home).
At the same time, however, she gleefully sends Him off for the bull, despite knowing that the bull is unpredictable and that it poses a risk to Him: she does, after all, end up praying for His safe return when He is fetching the bull and bringing it to the farm. She even takes His blanket from him and gives it to her other children when they complain of the cold, and He doesn’t.
Clearly, she reasons, He doesn’t feel cold if he doesn’t complain about it – which seems a bit like saying a mute person didn’t mind you taking their coat because they didn’t say anything when you made off with it.
So although she may come across as a caring and compassionate mother, with Mr Whipple being the colder one where He is concerned, a more complex picture emerges when we start to analyse her behaviour more closely.
Even in the story’s first paragraph, we learn that Mrs Whipple is prone to putting on a brave face when the neighbours are ‘in earshot’. She is concerned with appearances, perhaps, more than she is with material realities: more worried about how things look than with doing the right thing per se.
And this obsession with the veneer of appearances is a thread running through Porter’s story. It isn’t just Mrs Whipple who is guilty of it: the neighbours are two-faced towards her when commenting on Him, while Mr Whipple believes his wife’s brother is secretly thinking something altogether different from the polite comments he makes about Him at the dinner table.
But there is a reason why Porter is portraying Mrs Whipple in this way: gender. As the boy’s mother, at a time when the mother was viewed as the one who nurtured and cared for the children while the husband went out and worked, she feels the pressure to keep everything together for the family’s sake.
Early on in the story, after Mr Whipple makes a disparaging comment about how much she professes her love for Him to the neighbours, Mrs Whipple retorts that it’s ‘natural’ for a mother to do so, but people ‘don’t expect so much of fathers’. Porter depicts Mrs Whipple as so concerned with what people say about her because that is the world she inhabits. She feels responsibility for Him in ways that Mr Whipple doesn’t – and that society doesn’t expect of him.
And in the last analysis, the very fact that the boy is referred to by His mother simply as ‘He’ denies him an identity and an individuality. Or, to be more specific, it both strips Him of individuality and makes Him stand out (in the worst possibly way) as an individual, because He is obviously being treated differently. If one of Porter’s great themes is the struggle for identity in the modern world, He has a tougher struggle than most.