A married couple hang themselves with words in Katherine Anne Porter's short story "Rope," which details a heated argument, in a setting that is unfamiliar to both opponents, over a coil of rope and some forgotten coffee. In content, it's an argument you may hear, or participate in, every day; in style and form, it's both revelatory and stinging in its truth.
Balanced Argument, Shifting Tones
The reader is roped in at once: the argument begins "on the third day after they moved to the country" and builds entirely through dialogue, as wife and husband probe for chinks in the other's armor. Their spat reveals numerous "hot buttons" in the relationship: her hatred of the home, his hatred of her impatience, their detestation of each other. The tale's balance is remarkable: the couple never understand each other's thought processes, although we see them perfectly, and their mutual tone moves from annoyance to spite to white-hot anger. Porter, meanwhile, keeps her authorial tone discreet and uninvolved.
Beyond Hemingway in Form
"Rope" is similar to Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," another failed-relationship tale told in dialogue. Stylistically, however, Porter's syntax and form are beyond Hemingway. Each paragraph recounts the dialogue of both static individuals indirectly, without punctuation, in past tense, as if the tale were being told later by an overhearing neighbor. Each paragraph moves, not to a new speaker, but to a new grievance that both parties address; neither ever truly hears the other, although we do. We perceive a map not only of the argument but also of the frustrations that make up the marriage.
Porter, who suffered several failed relationships of her own, seems to be diagramming not only a marital upheaval but also the frustrated discovery that all couples experience when partners reveal selfishly real motivations. "Imagine caring more about a piece of rope than a man's feelings," the husband whines; the irony is that neither party cares for the other, any more than they care about the useless coil. The rope becomes a symbolic chain that joins them in misery, a noose that mentally lynches both as one. "It was the rope again," says Porter, invoking marital doom.
No Enlightening Ending
"Rope" eschews imagery and involved connotation; it's remarkably straightforward in its naturalistic details, and it stays on the porch, in the argument. We are free to shape out the couple's past and future for ourselves, but Porter's theme, love destroyed by miscommunication, is clear. The couple lighten up -- "he knew how she was" -- but are not enlightened; the marriage, although neither party will admit it, is at the end of its rope.
- Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images