“Theft” by Katherine Anne Porter

I completed my sixth short story from 2013’s “Project: Deal Me In” this last weekend. Although I doubt anyone is actually keeping score, I DO realize this will only be my fourth post related to this project. I’ve also read John Updike’s “Gesturing” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” and still entertain hopes of eventually posting about them. :-):

Note: This post includes SPOILERS. I couldn’t find the story online anywhere.  I have a copy of it in the John Updike edited book, The Best Short Stories of the Century, which was a gift from my fellow citizen of Bibliophilopolis, Richard. (Thanks again, Richard!)

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Saturday morning I drew the Jack of Hearts. Hearts being my suit for “women authors” in this year’s project, I was led to Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Theft.” I read a story by Porter (“Flowering Judas”) for last year’s project, but somehow it didn’t make a lastng impression on me. This year’s story was much better received – by this reader anyway.

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Checking in at only six pages, “Theft” is one of the shorter of the short stories I’ll read this year. The theft which gives the story its name doesn’t really happen until the mid-point of the story, although the first sentence hints that  something may be missing: “She had the purse in her hand when she came in… She surveyed the immediate past and remembered everything clearly. Yes, she had opened the flap and spread it out on the bench after she had dried the purse with her handkerchief.” If it weren’t for the title of the story, this passage could also describe a simple “misplacement” of the purse rather than hinting it’s been stolen.

The main, unnamed character’s “survey of the immediate past” gives us a glimpse into the apparently dissipated life she must lead (for my part, I thought she mighti as have well been traipsing around Paris with that crowd from “The Sun Also Rises”) which gives us some footing when the story is rejoined “live.”

After a visit by the “janitress” of the building where she lives, she notices the purse is missing and that there can naturally be only one explanation for her purse’s disappearance. She frets for awhile because she realizes that it would be “impossible to get it back without a great deal of ridiculous excitement.”

Eventually, after considering that the purse, though having little real value and not containing hardly any money, had been a gift, she confronts the woman, who at first energetically denies the accusation. The janitress soon relents, however ,admitting the act and pleading “don’t never tell on me. I musta been crazy. I get crazy in the head sometimes, I swear I do.” She explains that she thought she’d give the purse to her seventeen year old daughter, who could use some “nice things” to help her attract a man. The telling passage is “She’s got young men after her maybe will want to marry her. She oughta have nice things. She needs them bad right now. You’re a grown woman, you’ve had your chance, you ought to know how it is!”

“You’ve had your chance.” Ouch! After this, the woman tries to give the purse back to the janitress, who then doesn’t want it either. “I guess you need it worse than she does!” Is the final, cutting barb thrown at her by the janitress.

Though the stolen item had been recovered, I thought the woman had lost far more in terms of her own dignity and self-respect. The final musing of the woman is “I was right not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing.”

What have you read by Katherine Anne Porter? She is most famous for short stories, but did write at least one novel (that I’m aware  of). Any recommendations?

(Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980); picture from Wikipedia)

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