The Power of Negative Thinking: “Theft” by Katherine Anne Porter


Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter, a native of Texas, a writer of fiction, and an occasional Catholic who lived from 1890 to 1980, led a life to which the adjective “colorful” does only faint justice. Miss Porter is one of the many authors whose life is just as fascinating as her writings, and she herself seems to have been aware of this, for although she wrote comparatively little (one novel, a number of stories, and some essays), she cultivated her image and the myths which rose about her with the practiced and skillful hand of one who knows that the lines between truth and fiction often melt into each other—especially when manipulated by an artist.

The particular poignancy of many of Porter’s stories is in fact derived from the juxtaposition of cold facts with the main character’s delicate mingling of memory, storytelling, and self-delusion. One of her most effective and memorable stories, “Theft,” details a brief episode in the life of a woman whose existence, like that of Katherine Anne Porter herself, has been unsettled, ephemeral, drifting. The story is a tight and beautifully controlled portrait of failure and loss which never descends into the bathos in which such subjects can drown when handled with sentimentality instead of honesty.

Porter’s work, although deceptively simple on the surface, is always highly structured, and “Theft” is no exception. The story is crafted in such a way that the seemingly trivial and unconnected events demonstrate, with unsparing hand, the fatal weaknesses and even more fatal strengths of the unnamed female protagonist. There is much talk, among literary circles, of Porter’s style, and in this tale she combines clear, matter-of-fact narrative prose with passages of strangely rhythmic and almost poetic exposition. Slowly we realize, along with the main character, that the theft of a birthday gift is not the tragedy which it seemed at first; what has been lost, and what cannot be regained, is the control over life and her own fate which the main character long ago lost through her own inability or unwillingness to direct her existence.

What gives “Theft” a unique honesty, however, is Porter’s analysis of the heroine’s own previous delusions on the nature of her supposed trust in a Providence or justice which would carry her through life on the tide of a laziness hitherto mistaken for an easy generosity:

“She remembered how she had never locked a door in her life, on some principle of rejection in her that made her uncomfortable in the ownership of things… [S]he had been pleased with the bleak humility of this concrete example designed to illustrate or justify a certain fixed, otherwise baseless and general faith which ordered the movements of her life without regard to her will in the matter.”

In the combination of stupidity, triviality, pettiness and spite which characterize the thief by whose action the heroine suffers, Porter delineates the intimate relationship between evil and self-delusion; but she refuses to fall into the convenient trap of portraying wickedness and waste as wholly active. Indeed, by the close of the tale, the protagonist is made aware of the weight of her passivity, of the series of almost inaudible refusals—her own and those of others—which have accumulated during her life and resulted in the creation of chaos where order should be:

“In that 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…”

Some might argue that “Theft” is a precise and memorable picture of how a single incident can undo, devastatingly and irremediably, the laborious efforts of a lifetime of self-delusion and weakness. To a certain extent, this is true, and anchors the tale in the tradition of Greek tragedy; but the deeper tragedy, as Porter shows us through the opening part of the tale, is how carefully and easily, how cheerfully, in fact, each person becomes in his own way an artist who blends truth and fiction in his own life so that he can paint a portrait of himself that will please at every glance.

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