The main theme in ‘‘Aunty Misery’’ is the importance of death in the world. This significance is shown not only in the consequences of Death’s entrapment in the pear tree but also textually. Indeed, death is personified and becomes a character that drives the climax and denouement (end) of the story. He is also the most described character in the story; he appears in the form of a tired and worn-out traveler. Although the descriptive language in the story is relatively sparse, descriptions of Death are lengthy and vivid. When Death speaks, his voice is ‘‘dry and hoarse, as if he had swallowed a desert.’’ When he sighs it sounds ‘‘like wind through a catacomb.’’ These uncharacteristic descriptions hint at Death’s significance.
Death’s importance is also evident in the havoc caused in the wake of his absence. Doctors, undertakers, and pharmacists are unable to make a living. The old cannot die. They cannot pass on to another world and rest from the ‘‘miseries’’ of this one. Here, Death’s importance as a transformational phenomenon is noted. Death is the means through which people travel from one world to the other. He also provides the aged with a well-deserved rest and respite from the hardships of this world. Therefore, it becomes clear that Death is not only needed but wanted. This latter aspect can also be seen in the kindness he shows to Aunty Misery. He tells her he has come for her, agrees to let her bring her pears with her, and even picks them for her. Death, then, is portrayed as a benevolent force in the world.
Mortality is a variant on the theme of death. Its value is noted slightly in the undertakers’, pharmacists’, and doctors’ inability to make a living without it. More importantly, the value of mortality is stated fully when the old cannot die and are thus unable to go ‘‘to the next world to rest from the miseries of this one.’’
Immortality is another variant on the theme of death. Its troublesome nature is revealed in juxtaposition to the value of mortality. It is additionally embodied by Aunty Misery’s character. The old woman earns immortality by tricking Death and extracting a promise from him that he will never come for her. However, her life before Death’s appearance was stagnant and will presumably remain so. This stagnation is a sly hint at the cost of immortality. The other consequence is indicated in the story’s last line. It is implied that Aunty Misery is misery personified, ‘‘and that is why so long as the world is the world, Aunty Misery will always live.’’
Given the implication that Aunty Misery is the personification of misery itself, the story becomes a myth or parable that seeks to explain why misery exists and why it is an inextricable aspect of life in this world. However, while the old woman is perceived as miserable by the neighborhood children (and, presumably, by the narrator), she herself does not seem miserable at all. She happily tends to her pear tree and lives her life in peace. The only thing that brings her misery is the neighborhood children, and that problem is solved early on in the story. Aunty Misery’s happiness also seems to be indicated in her bid for immortality. Where the other aged people of the world wish to die in order to escape their ‘‘miseries,’’ Aunty Misery has no such desire.
Loneliness is a subtle theme in the story. Although Aunty Misery lives alone and her only friend is a pear tree, she never appears to feel lonely. Her solitary existence, however, is disconcerting to those around her, and that is why the children taunt her.
Charity, and its rewards, are a more evident theme in ‘‘Aunty Misery.’’ Although Aunty Misery is perceived by those around her as a miserable and miserly old woman, in reality, she is caring, giving, and kind. This is shown on several occasions in the story. For example, her charity toward the pilgrim proves her to be a sympathetic personality. Not only does she give the pilgrim the shelter he requests, she also feeds him and makes him a bed in the warmest part of the house. She does so, also, without expectation of reward or payment. But charity, as the story shows, does have its rewards when freely given (this is also one of the story’s morals). Aunty Misery’s charitable nature is seen again when she grants the children their freedom in exchange for their agreement to leave her alone, a rather fair and just request. She also offers aid to Death when he appears as a weary traveler, and she agrees to free him so that the undertakers of the world can make a living. Ultimately, Aunty Misery’s most ostensible act of charity (feeding and housing the pilgrim) inadvertently results in her achieving immortality.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Published by Gale Group, 2001.