Aunty Misery is the main character of the story; the eponymous hero, or more accurately, antihero. Regardless of her lack of endearing charms, the story revolves around her. Notably, Aunty Misery is not an actual name, but a nickname, one that describes the character and her attributes. In fact, the nickname serves to underscore and highlight the character’s role as a miserable old woman. However, this cannot truly be the case, as Aunty Misery’s charity toward the stranger hints at a more worthy and sympathetic personality than the one ostensibly portrayed. For instance, Aunty Misery lives alone, but she is not described as lonely. She is happy caring for her beloved pear tree, which keeps her ‘‘company.’’
The only annoyance in her life is the children who insult her and steal from her tree. Although her resentment does make Aunty Misery appear to be something of a miser, her softer nature is revealed in her charity toward the pilgrim. She feeds him and gives him shelter and a bed by the fire. Aunty Misery asks for nothing in return for this kindness. But, when the pilgrim offers to show his gratitude by granting a wish, Aunty Misery knows exactly what to ask for. And, though she does leave the children stuck in her pear tree for some time, she ultimately lets them go as long as they agree to leave her alone. This act seems to show that Aunty Misery does not have a vindictive nature. She only wants to be allowed to live her life in peace.
Aunty Misery’s charitable nature is again revealed when she sees Death disguised as a traveler. He looks so tired that she asks how she can help him. Her sympathy to the plight of doctors, pharmacists, and undertakers is also admirable. Her feeling for the elderly who have tired of life is also of note. All of these characters need Death to be freed from the tree, and in consideration of this, Aunty Misery finds a way to become immortal while still fulfilling the needs of others.
Death is the catalyst that drives the story and its conclusion. Death is a noun personified—a thing made human or given human attributes. He appears in the form of a tired and worn-out traveler. Since Aunty Misery has already had a good experience aiding tired pilgrims, she offers to help him. But, when Death reveals his true identity, Aunty Misery tricks him into picking pears for her, thus imprisoning him in her tree. In this manner, Aunty Misery is able to cheat Death. Although Death plays a brief, albeit significant, role in the plot, he is the most described character. In fact, the story is predominantly lacking in descriptive language. Only Death presents an exception to that rule. When Death speaks, his voice is described as being ‘‘dry and hoarse, as if he had swallowed a desert.’’ When he sighs it sounds ‘‘like wind through a catacomb.’’
Death’s character is also revealed to be kind and considerate as well as honorable. When Aunty Misery asks to be allowed to bring pears with her to the next life as a keepsake, Death generously grants her request. He even goes so far as to pick the fruit for her. Death’s honorable nature is revealed further when he agrees never to come for Aunty Misery after he is released from her tree.
The doctors in the world complain about the state of affairs; namely, that Death is trapped in a tree and that no one can die. Because people have become immortal, they do not go to see the doctors. They have no need to have their ailments treated because there are no consequences if they do not. This leaves the doctors unable to make a living.
Though the narrator is not an actual character in the story, the narrator’s personality does occasionally assert itself. For instance, at the opening of ‘‘Aunty Misery,’’ the narrator notes, ‘‘This is a story.’’ The statement not only reminds the reader of the fictional nature of the tale that follows but also makes the reader extremely conscious of the narrator’s presence. The adoption of the children’s nickname for the old woman also seems to hint at the narrator’s personality. The narrator changes from dispassionately calling the old woman an old woman to being influenced by the children’s description.
The neighborhood children pester and plague Aunty Misery. They tease her and insult her and steal the pears from her beloved tree. They abscond with more than they need, taking armloads of fruit, which indicates their greed and selfishness. They are the only blight on Aunty Misery’s otherwise peaceful existence. The children are also responsible for naming Aunty Misery and pigeonholing her personality according to her most negative traits. However, this nickname more accurately reflects the children’s perception of her than it does the old woman’s true nature. It also reflects their desire to hurt her.
After the children become stuck in Aunty Misery’s tree, they are allowed to sit in the tree for some time. This punishment leads them to beg and plead, and also to respect their promise to leave Aunty Misery alone from then on.
In the story, the old people of the world wish to die but are unable to do so after Aunty Misery traps Death in her tree. The old people are tired of life, and they want to be able to go ‘‘to the next world to rest from the miseries of this one.’’ Aunty Misery is not one of these people, as she clearly wishes to live forever. Nevertheless, she is sympathetic to their plight. In addition, the use of the word ‘‘miseries’’ has a dual meaning. Aunty Misery cannot die and is stuck in this world. But the only way to escape misery is to die. At the same time, (Aunty) Misery is keeping others from escaping misery.
The pear tree plays the role of a character in ‘‘Aunty Misery.’’ It is beautiful and its fruit is desirable. The pear tree is Aunty Misery’s only friend. She spends all of her time tending to it, and it is also described as keeping her ‘‘company.’’ As the years go by, the tree ages alongside the old woman. It becomes as bent and twisted with age as she is. The pear tree is enchanted by a magical spell, and thus it becomes a prison to all who climb its branches. First it traps the neighborhood children; next, it serves as a cage for Death for several years.
The pharmacists of the world are unable to make a living while Death is trapped in Aunty Misery’s pear tree. They whine to Aunty Misery. No on can die and so they do not want to buy medicine. The narrator also explains that ‘‘medicines are, like magic potions, bought to prevent or postpone the inevitable.’’ This comment is remarkable in that it is the only hint of social commentary in the story.
The pilgrim is a traveler who stops at Aunty Misery’s hut and asks for shelter for the night. Generally, pilgrims are traveling for religious purposes, but whether or not this is the case is not clear in the story. The traveler is described as having an ‘‘honest’’ face. However, this is not exactly true since he is actually a magician traveling in disguise. Nevertheless, Aunty Misery makes him dinner and a bed by the fire. Her charity is given out of kindness and without expectation of reward. But it does indeed pay off when the pilgrim offers to grant a wish for her. This offer is without moral guidelines or judgment, as he says that it will be granted no matter what it is. This could be potentially dangerous, and in a sense it is. The ultimate (unintended) consequence is that no one can die. The traveler is not portrayed as saying a spell, but he does touch the tree on his way out of Aunty Misery’s hut. This touch apparently casts the spell that the old woman has requested. Given the traveler’s incognito behavior, the only way that the reader even knows that the pilgrim is a sorcerer is because the narrator says so.
The undertakers, like the doctors and the pharmacists, are out of work because Death is trapped in Aunty Misery’s pear tree. After several years have gone by without any deaths, they finally go to the old woman and complain about the situation.
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.