Mrs. Whipple's Mistreatment of Her Son in Katherine Anne Porter's He

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Mrs. Whipple's Mistreatment of Her Son in Katherine Anne Porter's He

The prevailing theme in Katherine Anne Porter's story "He" is Mrs. Whipple's concern over appearances and particularly how her neighbors perceive her actions concerning her retarded son. Many critics have written about Porter's emphasis on appearances in this story. However, what lies under the surface of the story is also interesting. Contrary to both her actions and spoken words, it is clear Mrs. Whipple inwardly feels her retarded son is an animal and that she secretly wishes for his death.

The story "He" is similar to another story of Katherine Anne Porter's titled "The Downward Path to Wisdom." Both stories depict children who are retarded, who are equated to animals by one or both of the parents, and who are wished dead or never born (Weisenforth 359).

The title of the story "He" provides the reader with the first clue that the retarded son is de-humanized. Throughout the story the other two of Mrs. Whipple's children, Emly and Adna, are given names and are referred to by their given names. This is not true of the retarded son. Not once in the story is He called by his given name. In fact, the reader never learns his given name. The failure to give the retarded son a name is similar to the farm practice of giving names to pets but not to the ever-present farm animals. People generally do not name animals they plan on killing. Because Emly and Adna have names, they appear to the reader to be more human. In contrast, the failure to name the retarded son makes him appear more animal-like or less than human.

Another example of animal treatment takes place during family meals. The retarded son does not eat his meals at the table with his family. In a description of the retarded son, Porter writes "He didn't whine for food, as the other children did, but waited until it was given Him; He ate squatting in the corner, smacking and mumbling" (597). When Mrs. Whipple's brother comes for a visit, Porter writes "He wouldn't come into the dining room, and Mrs. Whipple passed it off very well" (599). For appearances sake "Mrs. Whipple loaded up a big plate for Him first, before everybody"(Porter 599). The parallels to how people treat their dogs can not be overlooked. It is common practice for dog owners to train their dogs not to beg or whine for food.

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