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

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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Many dog owners feed their dogs in the kitchen, placing their food and water bowls in the corners. Also, it is common to feed the dog first so that the dog doesn't disrupt the family's dinner by begging.

Although it is pitiful that the retarded son gets treated like an animal, what is even more sad is Mrs. Whipple's secret wish for her son's death. The neighbors are much more frank when "talking plainly among themselves" and felt it would be "A Lord's pure mercy if He should die" (Porter 598).

On the surface it appears Mrs. Whipple has the utmost concern over her retarded son's well being. In one passage Mrs. Whipple states "I wouldn't have anything happen to him for all the world, but it looks like I can't keep him out of mischief" (Porter 597). This couldn't be farther from the truth. Not once in the story does the reader find any attempts by Mrs. Whipple to keep this son out of mischief or out of harm's way. There are several examples of Mrs. Whipple finding him climbing trees like a monkey or climbing the rafters in the barn and not making any effort to stop him. Climbing trees and rafters are clearly dangerous activities which could result in death with one small slip of the foot. In fact, Mrs. Whipple states "it's actually funny sometimes the way He can do anything; it's laughable to see Him up to His tricks" (Porter 597).

Critic Winfred Emmons writes that Mrs. Whipple "wishes He had never been born; but she practices the eleventh commandment, which is to put up the appearance of virtue if one cannot manage the real thing" (354). Although Porter writes "Mrs. Whipple's life was a torment for fear something might happen to Him" (597) and that she thought "sometimes I wish I was dead" (600), just the opposite was true. What Mrs. Whipple actually meant was that sometimes she wished He was dead and that her life was a torment for fear something wouldn't happen to him. In fact, there are three instances where Mrs. Whipple deliberately sent Him into potentially life-threatening situations.

The first example is when Mrs. Whipple is afraid she won't be able to send her retarded son out to the bees anymore due to concern expressed by her nosey neighbors. Mrs. Whipple's justification for sending her retarded son out to the bees in the first place is because "Adna can't handle them, they sting him so" (Porter 598). But of the retarded son she states "if He gets a sting He don't really mind" (Porter 598). The fact that excessive bee stings can kill is not a concern of Mrs. Whipple's when sending Him out to the bees.

The second example occurs in early Autumn with the expected arrival of Mrs. Whipple's brother and family. In this scene, Mrs. Whipple decides it would be nice to kill a suckling pig for dinner. The problem was "how to get the little pig away from his ma, a great fighter, worse than a Jersey cow. Adna wouldn't try it: 'That sow'd rip my insides out all over the pen'" (Porter 598). However, Mrs. Whipple does not hesitate to send in her retarded son to get the little suckling, justifying her actions because "He's not scared" (Porter 598) while she laughed and thought it was funny. A person's lack of fear does not have anything to do with how dangerous a situation is and, again, Mrs. Whipple is clearly not concerned with His safety.

In the final and most obvious example, Mrs. Whipple allows the retarded son to lead their neighbor's bull to their pasture for breeding. Porter writes "Mrs. Whipple was scared sick of bulls; she had heard awful stories about how they followed on quietly enough, and then suddenly pitched on with a bellow and pawed and gored a body to pieces" (601). Although she knew she shouldn't make a sound or move as soon as He got closer, "her voice burst out of her in a shriek" (601). This is the most obvious example of Mrs. Whipple's wish for His death and shows just how desperate she had become. Mrs. Whipple even put appearances aside in this one instance. Unfortunately for Mrs. Whipple, this action did not result in His death and her life continued on its downward spiral.

At the end of the story, He is being taken away to a Country Home for treatment. Mrs. Whipple assures her neighbor that "this is only for a little while" leaving the reader to conclude that this will be a permanent situation (Porter 603). In a round about way, Mrs. Whipple receives her wish. Even He came to the realization that Mrs. Whipple was finally receiving her wish for Porter writes "He was scrubbing away big tears that rolled out of the corners of His eyes" and "He seemed to be accusing her of something"( Porter 603). Perhaps not His death but His removal from her life.

Works Cited

Emmons, Winfred. "Katherine Anne Porter: The Regional Stories." Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1990. Vol. 4. 350-356.

Porter, Katherine A. "He." The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews, et al. New York: Norton, 1998. 596-602.

Wisenfarth, Joseph. "Negatives of Hope: A Reading of Katherine Anne Porter." In Renascence. Vol. XXV. No. 2. Winter, 1973. 85-94. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1990. Vol. 4. 359-361.

Works Consulted

Hardy, John E. "Katherine Anne Porter." NY: Ungar, 1973. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1980. Vol. 15. 428-430.

Johnson, James W. "Another Look at Katherine Anne Porter." Virginia Quarterly Review. 36:4. 1960. 598-613. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale. Detroit, 1977. Vol. 7. 310-312.

Liberman, M.M. "Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction." Wayne State University Press. Detroit, 1971. 87-90.

Warren, Robert P. "Uncorrupted Consciousness: The Stories of Katherine Anne Porter." The Yale Review. Vol. LV, No. 2, December 1965. 280-90. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Gale. Detroit, 1990. Vol. 4. 349-350.

Welty, Eudora. "Katherine Anne Porter: The Eye of the Story." The Yale Review. Vol. LV, No. 2. Winter 1966. 30-40. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale. Detroit, 1984. Vol. 27. 398-400.
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