By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Witches’ Loaves’ is a short story by the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). His stories are characterised by their irony and by their surprise twist endings. Both of these elements became something of a signature feature, and ‘Witches’ Loaves’ certainly carries a twist ending. The story is about an unmarried woman running a bakery, who takes a shine to one of her regular customers, a man who she deduces is an artist.
The story is about loneliness, courtship, and how looks can be deceptive. You can read ‘Witches’ Loaves’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story below.
‘Witches’ Loaves’: plot summary
Martha Meacham is a forty-year-old unmarried woman who runs a bakery. Several times a week, a man who speaks with a German accent comes in and buys two stale loaves of bread.
She is attracted to him and deduces he must be an artist because of the paint stains she observes on his fingers. One day, she brings down a painting she owns and sets it up in the bakery, hoping it will confirm her conjecture.
Sure enough, the next time the man comes in to buy his stale bread, he notices the painting and engages her in conversation about it, asserting that the perspective in the painting is not very good. This leads Martha to believe she was right about him being an artist, and she starts to entertain dreams of marrying him to support him in his art. She uses a mixture of quince seed and borax to improve her complexion and make herself more appealing to him, and wears a blue-dotted silk apron, replacing her own brown serge one.
She notices that the man is becoming increasingly thin and weak, and infers that he must be struggling to earn a living from his art. So one day, when a fire engine passes in the road outside and the man is distracted by it, she opens up the two stale loaves and furtively inserts a generous amount of butter into both, to fatten him up.
She imagines what it will be like for the man when he opens the bread and discovers her kindness. But not long after this, the door to her bakery opens and the artist comes in with a young man smoking a pipe. The artist shouts at her and accuses her of being a ‘Dummkopf’ (German for ‘fool’), a ‘Tausendonfer’ (German for ‘millipede’, i.e., a pest), and a ‘meddingsome [i.e., meddling] old cat’ before storming out.
It is left to his young companion to explain the reason for this outburst. He tells Martha that his friend, whose name is Blumberger, is an architectural draughtsman who has spent three months drawing a plan for a new city hall. Once he had marked out the drawing in pencil, he had been using crumbs of the stale bread to rub out the pencil lines. The butter had got grease on his drawing and ruined it.
When the man has left, Martha goes into the back room of her bakery and removes her blue-dotted apron, replacing it with the old brown one. She also disposes of the quince seed and borax mixture she had been using to improve her complexion: she has given up on finding love.
‘Witches’ Loaves’: analysis
‘Witches’ Loaves’ is one of O. Henry’s light stories, and also one of his shortest (and few of his stories ran to more than a few pages). It’s essentially a tale about an act of kindness which backfires, but in doing so, it also puts an end to what the female protagonists believes to be a promising courtship.
And O. Henry encourages us to feel sympathy for Martha Meacham, who wishes to help a fellow human being who appears to have fallen on hard times. Of course, she has a vested interest in the matter, since she is clearly looking for companionship and a potential husband, and believes the ‘artist’ may be a likely partner for her.
Her deductions, however, prove to be incorrect. Blumberger is not some starving artist but a well-paid draughtsman who has been given the important job of designing a new city hall: no small undertaking, and presumably one which pays better than the two thousand dollars in savings which Martha has. He buys stale bread not because it’s all he can afford to eat; indeed, he doesn’t plan on eating the bread at all. ‘Witches’ Loaves’ is about an innocent and well-meaning misunderstanding.
At the same time, however, it is worth bearing in mind Martha’s age. She is unmarried – what would been referred to as a ‘spinster’ when the story was written – and forty years old. Time is running out for her to find a husband or, quite probably, she will grow old and die alone.
Blumberger offers a potential opportunity for courtship and, eventually, possibly even marriage. When the artist turns out to be a draughtsman whose work she has inadvertently ruined through her kind deed, she realises that all the borax and quince seeds in the world will not help. She seems resigned to her fate as a single woman.
The story’s title, ‘Witches’ Loaves’, offers a somewhat less kindly interpretation of Martha’s motives. Given the association between women and evil enchantment, the title suggests that Martha has attempted to ‘bewitch’ Blumberger with the butter in order to try to win him as her husband. Of course, this may strike us as a little harsh, but it’s probably how Blumberger, who has just had three months’ work ruined, would view the matter.
And a less generous interpretation of her actions might view her as a lonely and somewhat desperate woman who invents an identity for a man she hardly knows because she loves the romantic idea of the struggling artist whom she can ‘save’ with her fresh bread and cakes and her two thousand dollars.
Instead of being up-front with him and offering to give him fresh bread or a cake as a gift and gesture of goodwill, she tricks him by sneaking the butter into the bread and, in doing so, is the architect (no pun intended) of her own unhappiness.
But then, if she had done so, rather than secretly concealing a gift inside his loaves, she would have discovered he was a more practical-minded draughtsman rather than a romantic artist. Would she have still desired him then? Or was she more in love with the idea of who he was, which she had invented out of her daydreaming imagination?