Research Papers and Essays
Ronnie Oldham

Katherine Anne Porter's "Rope" Unraveled

Part I: Abstract:

    Like the majority of literary criticism of Katherine Anne Porter's "Rope," Jane Krause DeMouy's comments are part of a larger work examining the thread of characteristics, themes and techniques woven throughout Porter's writings. In her "Katherine Anne Porter's Women: The Eye of Her Fiction," DeMouy focuses primarily on six stories published in "The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter" between 1922 and 1928. She characterizes them as "all stories of women caught in constricting circumstances who must recognize and confront two burdens in their lives: Their sexuality and their social position." DeMouy suggests that in "Rope," Porter is examining circumstances in which a woman of her own background and social standing might find herself, trapped in an unhappy marriage and personally limited by the attitudes and values of her spouse.

    The third-party narrative technique employed in "Rope" is described as not being omniscient nor providing insight into the psyche of the characters. The fact that we never learn the identity of the characters is dismissed as "The man and the woman in 'Rope' are unnamed and undescribed." What we know of the two is based primarily on the content and tone of their conversations. DeMouy describes this technique as "having a distracting effect, as if the reader were watching a film of the incident rather than experiencing the quarrel from the emotional standpoint of either husband or wife." She also makes the assumption the story is actually told in hindsight from one of the character's point of view. Since "Rope" does illuminate the husband's feelings more than the wife's, she concludes the storyteller is most likely the husband and that "Rope" is the story of a wife's frustrations and of her husband's inability to understand and comprehend them.

    The wife is described as a woman who is generally unhappy with her life. She seeks comfort, order and control with no added aggravation, yet harbors a deep seated resentment just below the surface. When the husband brings home a rope instead of coffee, she takes it personally and interprets his actions as being tangible proof of his indifference toward her. In the exchange that follows, the character often displays bitter anger, resorting to bitting sarcasm and displaying a willingness to attack her husband's vulnerabilities. She carries a chip on her shoulder and saves her complaints and grievances to use as ammunition when hostilities erupt. Not only does she accuse her husband of not helping around the house, but when, in an sincere attempt to demonstrate his willingness, he reminds her of the few occasions he remembers trying, she only scoffs and discounts the worth of any of his assistance.

    The husband, on the other hand, is depicted as having admirable intentions, but no comprehension of her point of view and, as a result, fails to "keep her company, to share her fears, to value her difficulty, and to remember her desire." He views his role as a traditional breadwinner, bringing home the "regular money." He doesn't see the "house" as work; therefore, he is unable to sympathize with his wife when she feels "overwhelmed" by it. When the wife reminds her husband that housework "was no more her work than it was his," his response is intended to "put her in her place" and "[point] out her 'real' role." In his mind the man explains his wife's actions as "silly" or "raving," that she is ruled by her emotions and not by ration. His own actions seem justified in response to her "hysteria."

    Although DeMouy clearly paints the wife as bearing the lion's share of responsibility for the lack of effective communication in the relationship, she found it interesting to note that it was the wife who tended to cite specific problems, whereas the husband typically "[resorted] to name-calling."

    The author believes the relationship is "fated" and that "The burden of the quarrel rests with the woman; she initiates it and she ends it." Other ropes will continue to ignite the flames of discontent until the marriage ends with the woman being like the whippoorwill, " 'clear our of season' and left 'all by himself' by his mate."

PART II: Response

    After reading Jane DeMouy's commentary on "Rope," I tended to agree with her views on Porter's use of the third-party narrative. From the first reading of "Rope" I sensed objectivity in Porter's dialog writing, which I initially attributed to being able to see the individual perspective of both combatants. Realizing how uncomfortable it is and that cringing feeling one gets when unlucky enough to be present during someone else's marital spat make me appreciate her ability to let me be there, without being there.

    I believe that DeMouy's unfairly lays all the blame for the failed relationship on the wife. The husband, although he doesn't understand his wife's angry attacks, is himself guilty of adding fuel to the fire by responding with attacks of his own. He professes willingness and flexibility and he knows how to avoid the confrontations, yet refuses to be the only one to compromise. In response to unwarrented attacks from his wife, he feels a need to even the score by setting the record straight. This is a natural human tendency, although a few simple skills and an understanding on one's own motivations will often prevent the hurtful, unrestrained fighting that is so typical.

    "Rope" effectively demonstrates what can happen in a relationship without mutual respect and a conscious effort to understand the other's point of view. Unfortunately, these "fated" relationship are not uncommon in our society. Often minor disagreements escalate into domestic violence. Gender roles and perceptions, though radically evolving, continue to sabotage otherwise healthy and mutually beneficial liaisons. Regardless of the Katherine Anne Porter's purpose in writing "Rope," it offers a reference point for objectively evaluating one's own culpability in a relationship gone bad. It can also provide an insightful look at how not to handle a problem in a relationship. I've already shared it.

(Documentation Information)

DeMouy, Jane Krause. Katherine Anne Porter's Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1983


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