“A Tree of Night” by Truman Capote

This post is done in conjunction with “Short Stories on Wednesdays,” a weekly meme hosted by Nancy at Simple Clockwork. Please feel free to participate and share with us what short stories you are reading.


First, another coincidence… Although I pre-plan the 52 short stories I am to read during the year, I select the order I read them in randomly. This is accomplished by drawing a new card from a deck of playing cards, as I have assigned each of my stories to one of the fifty-two cards in a standard deck. Fate often seems to play a hand in what story I am led to read each Saturday when I do my drawing. Saturday, August 25th, I drew the ace of clubs and was led to Truman Capote’s short story “A Tree of Night.” The coincidence? Capote died in 1984 – on August 25th. Isn’t that something? 🙂 My stories for 2012 may be found here.

***Minor Spoilers follow***
A Tree of Night, first published in 1949, is a very short story that relies heavily on atmosphere to hook the reader. The hook didn’t sink in too deeply for me, but I did like the story. It’s about a young woman (a sophomore in college) traveling by train to Atlanta. It opens with her waiting on the platform of a train station, and Capote’s descriptive first few paragraphs are really well done and set a sinister mood which endures throughout the story. For example, he says, “it had rained (earlier) and now icicles hung along the station-house eaves like some crystal monster’s vicious teeth.”

When our heroine, Kay, boards the train, she finds only one seat available (ah! There’s the hand of fate again), and this next to an odd-looking couple: a somewhat drunk woman and her deaf-mute male companion. Though she would rather just be left alone, Kay is continually accosted by the woman to engage in conversation. Additionally, she is put on the defensive by the penetrating, intrusive questions of the woman.

She learns that the couple ekes out a marginal living as traveling performance artists, with the “performance” being a faux burial of the deaf-mute. Their business card says “LAZARUS – The Man Who Is Buried Alive – A MIRACLE -SEE FOR YOURSELF – Adults, 25 cents, Children, 10 cents” As the woman says, “Buh-leave me, it’s a hard way to turn a dollar.”

Eventually, Kay “flees” the couple and seeks some fresh air at the forward part of an observation platform. Her anxiety increases as she remembers tales she heard as a child which apparently were her region’s version of the bogey-man:

“Kay knew of what she was afraid: it was a memory, a childish memory of terrors that once, long ago, had hovered above her like haunted limbs on a tree of night. Aunts, cooks, strangers – each eager to spin a tale or teach a rhyme of spooks and death, omens, spirits, demons. And always there had been the unfailing threat of the wizard man: stay close to the house, child, else a wizard man’ll snatch and eat you alive! He lived everywhere,the wizard man,and everywhere was danger. At night, in bed, hear him tapping at the window? Listen!”

Of course, the couple aren’t really “through” with Kay yet. Perhaps to not risk dispersing the atmosphere he has created, Capote does not go into detail about what manner of foul play occurs (Robbery? Or something more?) and the reader is left to fill in the blanks for himself.

I wondered if the “deeper meaning” of the story lies in how, in childhood, we are often (with best intentions) “protected” by the grown-ups spinning tales
like that of the “wizard man,” but that these tales often remain imbedded in us, and can harm our ability to function normally – and safely – in the adult world. Something to think about, anyway.

What do you think of Capote? Anything else by him you’d recommend? All I’ve read is this story and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”




  1. Richard D. Boyle said,

    August 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Hi Jay, Thanks for the tantalizing review. I first read his “Other Voices, Other Rooms” as a teenager and later read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” but was not terribly impressed by either. However, “In Cold Blood” was another matter altogether. It remains one of the best written books of the 20th Century, an innovative mixture of fiction and investigative journalism which is unmatched in its chilling authenticity. If he had written nothing else, he would be famous for this classic. A “one hit wonder” somewhat like, ironically, his dear childhood friend, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Harper Lee.


    • Jay said,

      August 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      Hi Richard,
      In looking up a little biographical on Capote prior to this post, I learned that he lived in Kansas for four years as part of his research for In Cold Blood (which I’ve never read, but hope to some day). I thought that was impressive.

      I was also impressed with his writing in this short story. It was a long time ago when I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and not as literarily self-aware as I am now) and don’t remember being a huge fan of it. I’ll have to break out my copy and see if I made any annotations back then. I may buy a volume of his short stories for my short story reading project next year…


  2. Dale said,

    August 29, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    I read his short story, A Christmas Memory, a long time ago. I remember liking it, although most would consider it a little sentimental. Capote seemed to make it work.

    What did you think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s? I’ve always been curious about this novel.


    • Jay said,

      August 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Dale,

      I remember the girls in the book club were a lot more taken with Breakfast at Tiffany’s than I, but I liked it well enough. I don’t remember disliking it, anyway. 🙂

      Definitely an author I want to read more of now, though.



  3. Oana said,

    January 7, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Can someone helpe me with a critical view of this short story please ?


    • Oana said,

      January 7, 2014 at 5:28 pm

      help* sorry


    • Jerome said,

      April 1, 2022 at 3:13 pm

      I thought Jay gave a pretty good review of this story at the outset. He seemed to have fudged a bit, though, when he said that Capote left the story ambiguous. The ambiguity occurs because of the pronoun “She” near the very end. I had a disagreement with one critical reviewer who felt that the “She” referred to Kay herself. Not so! The “She” refers to the mad, drunk woman — who pulls Kay’s coat over *Kay’s* head and steals her purse and takes her money. Read again the last page and see what I mean. Perhaps some will say that Kay deserved what she got. Personally, I felt sorry for her — but this happens in Capote’s stories.



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