In Katherine Anne Porter's short story "He," she presents several themes that she develops primarily through the actions of the main characters, particulary Mrs. Whipple. Porter portrays a poor, lower class Southern family and the difficulties they encounter. More importantly, she centers the story around the feelings of shame, pride, and an exaggerated concern for appearances through Mrs. Whipple's's relationship with her mentally retarded son and her behavior toward Him. Other characters, such as her husband Mr. Whipple and their two "able-bodied" children Adna and Emly serve to expand the story's themes and highlight the extremity of Mrs. Whipple's actions.
Early in the story we see how vital appearance is to Mrs. Whipple. She remarks to her husband that no one should ever hear them complain (324). Her real effort to maintain a front for her neighbors, however, surrounds her "simple-minded son," who never has any identity other than "He." It seems that Mrs. Whipple fears that if those around her know He is retarded, this would reflect badly on her character. Many times, unfortunately, parents of children with any birth defect worry they have some blame to account for. Mrs. Whipple, unfortunately, represents a rather extreme case. She seemed to believe that by "over-loving" her son in public and refusing to acknowledge his handicap, she could avoid social stigma and somehow quell her own insecurities. Mrs. Whipple comments to whoever would listen that He is strong, capable, and "He can do anything . . . " (325). Such exclamations, the author tells us "seemed to ease her mind" (324). In these quotations we see clearly how Mrs. Whipple's actions...
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...ok sick" (332). Furthermore, she takes care to dress in her good clothes, so no one will think she looks like charity. Even as she is about to lose her son, she cannot let go of her need to put on a performance for the society she feels has shunned her.
Porter's story gives its audience a powerful lesson that extends far beyond social standing or mental handicaps. The pathetic example of "Him" shows us just how far many of us go for mere illusions. Mrs. Whipple was willing to sacrifice her son and her family's welfare in order to mask their situation. To a world of airbrushing and political propaganda, Porter shows how dangerous the game of pretense can become and how the innocent often bear the brunt of the harm.
Porter, Katherine Anne. "He." The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: Norton. 1998.
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