|Essay: Katherine Anne Porter's Short Story, "He"|
Katherine Anne Porter's "He":1 An Unloved Child
In Katherine Anne Porter's short story, "He," Mrs. Whipple's thinks of herself as the perfect mother. She is proud that Adna, her older son, has "so much brains" (52). She brags about the ambition of her daughter, Emly, who wants to be a teacher (56). She tells everyone that she loves "her second son, the simple-minded one, better than . . . the other two children put together," and better than her husband loves Him (49). Mr. Whipple does not like to hear her say that, 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 to her disabled child (known only as "Him").
Mrs. Whipple's self image is distorted. She does not treat her second son as kindly as she wants people to think. She resents the boy and abuses Him because of a mental disability that the child cannot help. Both parents neglect Him. Since He is big for His age, they pile extra chores on Him. The doctor warns them that "He isn't as stout as He looks . . . " (54). Once, the Whipples send him to lead a dangerous bull, though Mrs. Whipple is herself scared of it. She is more worried for her own safety than His. Actually, her biggest fear is that the neighbors will witness her neglect. Far from being "worried sick" (51) she usually finds it "'laughable to see Him up to His tricks'" (50).
Another time, she sends Him to take a sucking pig away from its mother (52). Ironically, the sow is a better mother than Mrs. Whipple. Mrs. Whipple laughs so the boy will approach the sow without fear, giving "Him a little push towards the pen. He sneaked up and snatched the pig right away from teat and galloped back and was over the fence with the sow raging at His heels.'" (52) By making light of the danger, she has betrayed the child's deepest faith, that His mother will protect Him. When she slaughters the pig in front of Him, He is horrified and runs away. His mother is not sorry. She says, "'He'll forget and eat plenty, just the same . . . '" (52). At dinner she serves Him a big plate, but she is just showing off to her brother. Usually, the child does not get enough to eat.
In the winter, Mrs. Whipple buys warm clothes for her two favorite children, but makes the disabled child do without. He becomes seriously ill. Mrs. Whipple tries to hide her neglect by by telling the doctor, "I just took off His big blanket to wash. . . . " (54). The parents seem sorry at first, but soon have Him doing heavy chores again. After He falls and begins to have fits, Mr. Whipple worries more about doctor bills than he does about his son. The doctor wants to put the boy in the County Home, but Mrs. Whipple says, "'We don't begrudge Him any care . . . I won't have it said I sent my sick child off among strangers.'" (57) She is still more worried about what the neighbors think than she is about the boy. Clearly, the child doesn't get enough to meet His needs. The reader knows this because the doctor is an objective witness who notices the neglect. He sees through Mrs. Whipple's pretenses. Porter uses irony to show that the Whipples are not the wonderful parents that they think they are.
When the Whipples decide to send the boy away, Mrs. Whipple daydreams of a happy future with her family, "all of them happy together" (58). Interestingly, her disabled son is missing from this happy picture. She is not concerned about Him. Then, something happens on the way to the County Home. The boy begins to sob. He seems to understand what is happening to Him. Mrs. Whipple feels terrible about it. She thinks of her past neglect and 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" (58). Her distress, pity, and guilt are real. Unfortunately, there is no chance that her sudden change of heart will change anything. Rather than admit that she could have loved her son more, or that she could change things by not sending Him away, she feels instead that she has "loved Him as much as she possibly could . . . " (58). She is sorry that He was ever born (58). Mrs. Whipple regrets that the boy is sad and that she herself feels so guilty; but, she still does not 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.
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