|Essay: Katherine Anne Porter's Short Story, "He"|
Katherine Anne Porter's "He":1 A Portrait of Child Abuse
In Katherine Anne Porter's short story, "He," Mr. and Mrs. Whipple struggle to make ends meet and care for their three children. Mrs. Whipple considers herself to be the ideal mother. She is proud that Adna, her elder son, has "so much brains" (52). She brags about the ambition of her daughter, Emly, who wants to be a teacher (56). Her other son, a mentally retarded child of ten, is known throughout the story only as "He" or "Him." According to Mrs. Whipple, she loves this son best (49). Mr. Whipple objects to the implication that his wife is the only one who loves the child; but, Mrs. Whipple says, "'It's natural for a mother,'" to love her children (better than a father does) (49). A mother's love may be natural, but it is not evident in Mrs. Whipple's relationship with her disabled child.
It soon becomes apparent that Mrs. Whipple's self image is quite distorted. She does not treat her second son as kindly as she would have people think. She resents the boy's existence, subjecting Him to abuse and neglect for a disability that the child cannot help. Mr. Whipple, too, is guilty of passive neglect. The child is big for His age, so both parents pile extra chores on Him, in spite of the doctor's warning that "He isn't as stout as He looks..." (54) Once, Mrs. Whipple boxes His ears, obviously hurting His feelings: "He blinked and blinked and rubbed His head, and His face hurt Mrs. Whipple's feelings" (53). Still, His mother is more concerned with her own discomfort than His, complaining that she is tormented "for fear something might happen to Him." (50) The child has no fear. He climbs trees and does other dangerous things. His mother insists that she "can't keep Him out of mischief'" (50). Really, she doesn't try very hard to keep Him safe. In fact, she takes advantage of His fearlessness, by giving Him difficult tasks that might cause real, physical harm.
Once, she and her husband send the boy to lead a dangerous bull, though Mrs. Whipple herself is terrified of the animal. She knows that if the bull were to charge, the boy would "never have sense enough to run" (55); but, she allows her own fear to take precedence over the boy's safety. Once, panicking, she screams at the boy to hurry. Her action--shrieking--might have gotten the child killed. She bolts away in fright. Her prayer shows that it is not her child's safety that concerns her, but the fear of having her neglect be known (56). Mrs. Whipple is quick to take issue with a neighbor who criticizes her for letting Him climb trees, taking the irrational stance that He is "'as able as any other child'" (51). Far from being "worried sick" as she says (51), she usually finds it "'laughable to see Him up to His tricks.'" (50)
The feast of roast pig that she plans for her brother only serves to point out her conceit and arbitrary treatment of her disabled son. She insists upon slaughtering a sucking pig at a great financial loss to her household, thus putting her pride and vanity above the needs of her children. Mrs. Whipple is too frightened to take the baby pig from its mother. Adna, too, refuses to get the sucking pig, saying "'That sow'd rip my insides out all over the pen'" (52) Ironically, the sow is more protective than Mrs. Whipple is of her own children. Mrs. Whipple sends her fearless, simple-minded son to get the pig, laughing so that He will not fear the sow: She "gave Him a little push towards the pen. He sneaked up and snatched the pig right away from teat and galloped back . . . with the sow raging at His heels'" (52). By making light of the danger, she betrays the child's faith that His mother will protect Him. She ignores His spiritual needs as well as His physical ones, slaughtering the baby pig in front of Him and being callous about His shocked reaction to the blood (52).
At dinner, she serves the child a big plate first, telling her brother, "'I always say He ain't to be slighted, no matter who else goes without'" (53). This is untrue. She actually begrudges the child every bite that He eats (52). The feast is not intended for His nourishment, but as a show of prosperity for her relatives. The description of her brother's "plump healthy wife and two great roaring hungry boys" stands out in stark contrast to that of the Whipple family, particularly their malnourished, mentally retarded son. (53) Since the simple-minded boy is accustomed to eating by Himself in a kitchen corner, He cannot be coaxed into the dining room during the feast. This discomfits Mrs. Whipple, but she passes it off as timidness. Later, she fears that her brother will say the Whipples "made Him eat in the kitchen" (54).
In the winter, Mrs. Whipple buys warm clothes for her two favorite children, but makes the disabled child do without. He gets seriously ill from malnourishment and cold. The parents briefly reverse their neglectful habits; but, only to keep up appearances, not to stave off pneumonia (55). They soon return to their abusive ways, giving Him heavy chores. After an injury, the boy begins to suffer from fits and the doctor advises them to put Him in the County Home. Mrs. Whipple protests: "'We don't begrudge Him any care . . . . I won't have it said I sent my sick child off among strangers'" (57). The first part of the statement is untrue. The Whipples both begrudge the child His care, in spite of Mr. Whipple's statement that "'He gets plenty to eat and wear . . . '" (51). Clearly, the child does not get enough to meet His needs. Both parents justify their neglect by making light of His suffering: He grows tall and fat, He does not notice His injuries, He is too simple-minded to know or care how He is treated. They ignore both His sensitivity and His declining health. In His mother's eyes He "never" gets hurt (though a head injury does cause Him to forget the few words that He has learned) (50). Porter describes many instances of neglect or direct abuse, and has an objective witness, the doctor, confirm the fact of neglect. Porter gives no evidence that the doctor is afraid of not being paid, as Mrs. Whipple thinks. Actually, the doctor seems caring. His attitude implies that the Whipples are guilty of neglect. The author often juxtaposes the self-serving words of Mr. and Mrs. Whipple against their chosen course of action, which is nearly always contrary to their stated intent.
The Whipples discuss the doctor's advice. Mrs. Whipple is against the County Home ("charity"), but finally agrees to send the child away until He is "better" (57). There are subtle clues that she is secretly glad the boy is going away. When she says that the stay will be temporary, Mr. Whipple--whose own motivation for sending the child away is the prospect of mounting doctor bills--reminds her that He will not get better. Although Mrs. Whipple counters his statement by saying, "'Doctors don't know everything,'" her mood brightens immediately (57). Considering her actions throughout the story, it is more likely that her happiness is due to the prospect of freedom from her albatross (Him), than by any thought that the doctor might be wrong. This explanation of her happiness is borne out in a daydream. She envisions a happy life, when it is "full summer again, with the garden going fine, and new white roller shades up all over the house, and Adna and Emly home, so full of life, all of them happy together" (57-58). Notably, her disabled son is missing from this idyllic picture. She must know that He is not coming home. Another clue that she secretly expects the stay to be permanent is hidden in the next-to-last paragraph of the story, when she realizes that "maybe He knew they were sending Him away for good" (58). Porter's use of the word "knew" instead of "thought" is significant here. Mrs. Whipple must know that He really is being sent away forever.
When it is time to take the child to the County Home, Mrs. Whipple is more concerned with appearances than with her son's comfort until, en route to the County Home, the child begins to sob (58). Mrs. Whipple is greatly affected. She pities the child and feels guilty. She thinks back on specific instances of abuse and neglect, and her betrayal of Him. She realizes that the child might have been scared or cold and unable to tell her. She can't "bear to think of it" and she cries "frightfully." Her distress, pity, and guilt here are real. Unfortunately, there is no chance that her sudden revelation will change the outcome of the situation. Rather than admit that she could have loved Him more, or that she could change her current course of action by not sending Him away, she feels that she has "loved Him as much as she possibly could" (58). She is sorry that He was ever born (58). Clearly, she has not taken full moral responsibility for her past behavior. There is no true enlightenment in this mother's belated remorse and no hope that she will ever realize the true worth of her innocent child's life.
1 Porter, Katherine Ann. "He." The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Harcourt, 1965. 49-58.
History and Purpose of This Document:
History of This document: date of first publication, 12 November 2007.