Paul Engles, editor of the O'Henry Award Anthology when this story was selected for inclusion in 1942, said he considered "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" "the most perfect short story in American Literature." Although this may sound somewhat extreme for such a seemingly slight little narrative, there is something classic about the basic character configuration and theme of the story.
The enclosed situation of the cafe in the early morning, the confrontation between the young initiate and the experienced one; the cynical and ironic observer, the silent chorus of men in the background--all this suggest a paradigmatic short story situation. Moreover, the story's focus on loneliness and the difficulty of loving fits with Frank O'Connor's famous definition of the short story in The Lonely Voice.
The narrative situation of the story is simple; what needs to be understood is the notion of love that it presents. Some readers may be as cynical as the cafe owner Leo in their reactions to the notion of loving a tree, a rock, a cloud. McCullers provides a suggestion about what she means by love in her essay, "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing' in The Mortgaged Heart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941: "How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage."
If we ask why it is easier to love a tree, a rock, a cloud than it is to love a person, the answer must be that love is indeed synonymous with identification with the other. The aim of love is to dissolve that which separates us and to swallow up the other. This is difficult with a person because the other is a subjective consciousness who wishes to maintain self identity.
However, as the transient tells the puzzled boy, one can gradually learn to identify with the other if one begins simply with the less threatening. This story is about that primitive sense of the sacred that constitutes true reality, the basic religious yearning of human consciousness to lose the self in the other. Leo knows the transient is right, but he also knows that such a demand is impossible for the ordinary human; the boy, of course, has yet to learn this hard fact of human reality.
Tomorrow: David Leavit's "Gravity"