Born in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1894, a great-great-great- granddaughter of the famous American frontiersman Daniel Boone, Katherine Anne Porter spent her early life in Texas and Louisiana. From her earliest childhood she was educated in convent schools of the South and, after graduation, worked as a newspaper reporter in Dallas and Denver. Illness forced her to give up her career as a journalist. She traveled extensively and lived in New York City, in Europe, and in Mexico, Drawing on her experience and travels, she employed a variety of backgrounds in her fiction.
Miss Porter's first published volume was Flowering Judas and Other Stories, which appeared in 1930, in 1931 and again in 1938, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. Before her novel Ship of Fools, appeared in 1962, she had published only short stories and novelettes, among them Pale Horse, Pale Rider in 1939 and The Learning Tower and Other Stories in 1944, Through a Glass Darkly appeared in 1958.
Miss Porter had one of the most subtle of writing talents. She made no easy explanations to her reader, assuming that he or she already knows something and that he or she will find the rest of what he needs to know in the story. As a writer, Miss Porter was devoted to her craft, and throughout her career she worked scrupulously and painstakingly, refusing to print anything until she was completely satisfied with it.
In many of her stories, Miss Porter explored the lives of characters who seem drawn into disillusionment and despair, sometimes by social, political, and natural forces beyond their control, often by their own selfishness and deceit. Like Hemingway, she appears to penetrate the thoughts of people, in detail or fragmentarily, and thus enabled the reader to experience the internal life of the character and his world.
In "Theft" we find an underlying structure of contrast and tension, the paradoxical problems of definition, and a characteristic refusal by the author to indulge in "formula" writing.
The setting for "Theft" is New York City. The heroine is a writer and reviewer, like Miss Porter. The time is the onset of the Great Depression of the l930s. The stolen purse in the story symbolizes all property. Appropriately, it is made of gold cloth. Thus, the stealing of the purse represents the conflict between the "haves" and the "have-nots." But the conflict is never simple in Miss Porter's stories, nor is it easy to arrive at a facile definition of the problem. The young woman who owns the purse has little else. She is in fact close to starving and may really be poorer than the janitress. But, like the purse, she is a symbol of those who possess things other people do not have but want. And at the end of the story, by a brilliant reversal, the janitress has succeeded in making the heroine feel that she has stolen, if not from the janitress herself, then from the janitress' niece. The emotions running through this story are mixed, as are the sympathies of the reader.