Theft by Katherine Anne Porter, 1930
The magic trick:
Contrasting the way different characters use material possessions to define themselves
Material possessions take center stage in this short, sad story about a group of struggling people. Each character has a special relationship to things, to stuff. Bill is stressed to the point of weeping because of the financial difficulties wrought by his wife’s spending – “the piano and the victrola, both – .” Camilo has a brief but complicated relationship with his hat – a symbol of need, pride and embarrassment. Roger is set apart from him as better because of his ability to keep his hat dry. And then there’s the purse. The protagonist cherishes it as an elegant gift, though its emptiness also serves to remind her of her poverty. Finally, in the key, closing scene, the janitress defines herself and her niece against material possessions. She initially wants “pretty things” for her niece but abruptly changes her mind and decides she’d rather have youth and good looks than material gifts anyway. The notion of theft is turned on its head as we see that sometimes it’s the gifts that take the most away. And that’s quite a trick on Porter’s part.
In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed from her and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with; bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inescapable: the long patient suffering of dying friendships and the dark inexplicable death of love – all that she had had, and all that she had missed, were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses.