The Martyr by Katherine Anne Porter
In The Martyr by Katherine Anne Porter we have the theme of love, friendship, art, selfishness and grief. Taken from her Flowering Judas and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Porter may be exploring the theme of love. Rubén is very much in love with Isabel though it would appear that the love is not reciprocated and if anything Isabel appears to be using Rubén for her own benefit. Something that is noticeable by the fact that she stays in Rubén’s studio and home when her own lover has no money. What is also interesting is that despite Rubén being intensely in love with Isabel she treats him inappropriately at times even going as far as being violent towards him. At no stage in the story does the reader feel as though Isabel feels the same way about Rubén as he does about her. Her main focus is on herself and making herself as comfortable as possible in life. Something she manages to achieve through her engagement with the rival artist. Though she speaks affectionately of Rubén her actions, particularly her letter, suggest that she has no real interest in Rubén. The most important person in Isabel’s life is Isabel. However Rubén is unable to see this and commits his heart to Isabel.
Porter may also be exploring the theme of friendship. Though Rubén’s friends are there for him when Isabel first leaves it is also noticeable that as the story progresses they eventually abandon Rubén. Leaving a doctor from the University with the responsibility of trying to help Rubén. Though only briefly mentioned in the story the doctor is nonetheless an important character. It is through his advice that the reader realises that his prescription for Rubén is based on practicality and does not involve any cure or remedy for affairs of the heart. The fact that Rubén also puts on a lot of weight may also be important as it is possible that he is comfort eating and using food as a tool to help him overcome the negative feelings he has over Isabel leaving him. So distraught is Rubén that he is relying on food and alcohol to help him through the day. Using both as tools to block out the pain that he is feeling.
The fact that Rubén considers himself to be a martyr to love is also interesting as it highlights just how deeply Rubén feels about Isabel. Though some critics may suggest that Rubén is being impractical and should have followed Ramón’s advice (move on) Porter may be suggesting that an artist (or writer) lives their life differently to others. Channeling all their creativity through another human being (a muse as Isabel may have been). Rationality may not necessarily come into play for an artist such is the intensity of feeling they may have when it comes to their creative process. It is not a coincidence that as soon as Isabel leaves Rubén his creativity or productivity ceases and he succumbs to depression. No longer is he able to paint or carry on with his life as he had previously done. Any inspiration that he felt is also gone such is the importance of Isabel to Rubén. Though she treated him negatively he still nonetheless was inspired by her. At no stage does Rubén look at his relationship with Isabel in a logical manner which is often the case when it comes to an artist and his muse. Logic often plays no part in the creative process. With the process often being driven by feeling rather than logic.
The end of the story is also interesting as Porter shifts the focus away from Rubén and onto Ramón. Rather than being distraught over Rubén’s death Ramón is more focused on the book he plans to publish about Rubén. Which may suggest that Ramón is more interested in his own life than he is in Rubén’s life. Something that the reader is already aware from Ramón’s previous actions of staying away from Rubén when he was grieving the loss of Isabel. Ramón in many ways is romanticizing Rubén’s life without taking into consideration just how Rubén may have felt. Ramón himself spent only one week grieving the loss of a woman in his life which may suggest that the relationship did not have the same intensity that Rubén’s relationship with Isabel had. Despite being Rubén’s friend Ramón has no real understanding as to what happened to Rubén. Yet he feels qualified to publish a book on Rubén’s life. Which may lead some readers to suggest that Ramón is not only more concerned about his book but he may also be selfish. As too are Rubén’s other friends. At no stage in the story have any of Rubén’s friends truly understood how he felt about Isabel and rather than trying to understand his feelings they abandoned Rubén leaving him in the care of a medical doctor. When the reality was that Rubén’s ailment was not physical but emotional. He had fallen in love with a woman who became his muse yet she did not return his affections.