The Burglar’s Christmas by Willa Cather, 1896
The magic trick:
Presenting a stark contrast between the young man’s circumstances at the beginning of the novel and those of the ending
Cather presents a stark contrast from start to finish in this story. The opening scene features two homeless men debating where to go for a free meal on Christmas Eve. The younger man is so far gone as to be considering suicide.
Flash forward a few pages and you’ll find the same young beggar wolfing down a fancy dinner in a fancy chair seated at a fancy table in the fancy library of his parents’ fancy home.
That’s a long way to travel in a short story, but the distance – and the contrast – is kind of the point of the story. And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.
Yet he was but four and twenty, this man—he looked even younger—and he had a father some place down East who had been very proud of him once. Well, he had taken his life into his own hands, and this was what he had made of it. That was all there was to be said. He could remember the hopeful things they used to say about him at college in the old days, before he had cut away and begun to live by his wits, and he found courage to smile at them now. They had read him wrongly. He knew now that he never had the essentials of success, only the superficial agility that is often mistaken for it. He was tow without the tinder, and he had burnt himself out at other people’s fires. He had helped other people to make it win, but he himself—he had never touched an enterprise that had not failed eventually. Or, if it survived his connection with it, it left him behind.