Short story: “The Button”

by look i have opinions

“The Button,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in Mermaids on the Golf Course

Maybe around 8,000 words

I think what makes this story so eerie is its flirtation with pointlessness. Following the murder and aftermath, it spends a surprising amount of time on a mundane family vacation, and all the small attendant humiliations. I keep expecting a rise in the action or tension, but none comes. The only change is the wane of Roland’s anger. He still goes through the usual routines, but we don’t see him suppressing his hateful impulses anymore. The conclusion is almost anticlimactic. Having mused over the button for some time, Roland stumbles upon its real significance: “He had killed a man in revenge for Bertie. He had superiority, in a sense, one-upmanship. He must never forget that. He could face the years ahead with that.”

The story doesn’t quite spell it out, but the memory may allow Roland to behave like a tolerably good father for most of his life, just as we see him doing now. For some readers that probably adds another layer of horror. To me, though, it seems almost nice. The death of one probably innocent adult is a steep price to pay for a child’s happiness, but not as steep as I would have expected.