The story is told by a first-person narrator who is recalling events that happened to him sometime in the past. Not until the epilogue does he reveal that thirty-five years separate the events of that June day from the narration. This distance sets up a contrast between the nine-year-old Seth’s point of view and the forty-four-year-old narrator’s. This structure not only invites comparison between the boy’s perception of events and the man’s, it also asks readers to consider how the mechanism of memory works. In other words, is it the events of that June day that are important, or the recollection of those events over the intervening time period?
Because the adult narrator is capable of understanding and interpreting the events of the day better than the child is, the narrative structure of the story anticipates an explanation. Readers expect that by the end, the elder Seth will provide the missing pieces and a narrative overlay to connect the fragments and explain the significance of the events of the day. Warren never gives his narrator a chance to offer a full resolution, however. Though it is clear throughout the narrator’s story that he understands events much better now than he did then, he still cannot account for the bigger mysteries. ‘ ‘The man is looking backward on the boy he once was,” Bohner explains, “recalling objectively his childhood bewilderment. The events of the day had puzzled the child, but the man, remembering the experience, is not puzzled. Rather he now sees the experience as a paradigm of a problem he has carried into adulthood. He has come to terms with the problem—it is one mark of his maturity—but it is a problem that is never finally resolved.”
The southern rural setting of Blackberry Winter is significant in several ways. Warren considered himself a Southerner and a southern writer his entire career, despite the years he spent living in Minnesota, New York, and abroad. He, like Flannery O’Connor wrote years later, believed that the south would produce a richer literature because the experience of the Civil War and its repercussions meant that the region had “already had its fall,” had already acquired a deeper and more tragic vision of the human condition. For Warren the rural life in Kentucky and Tennessee (where the story is set) conjures images of an agrarian way life in the south that he believed was being threatened by the intrusion of homogenous northern industrialism.
On a more personal level, though, the farm in Blackberry Winter evokes his grandfather’s place in Cerlulean, Kentucky, where Warren spent summers as a boy. Living in Minneapolis in 1946, where snow in May was not uncommon, Warren was apparently nostalgic for the warmer spring of his youth and found himself with a string of memories that became the story that many consider his best piece of short fiction.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Robert Penn Warren, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.