Ethan Canin

The Palace Thief

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  • Features 4 story summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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The Palace Thief Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 40-page guide for “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin includes detailed story summaries and analysis covering 4 stories, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Comradeship and Rivalry and The Appearance of Power.

Ethan Canin is an American novelist and short story writer, born in 1960. He currently holds the F. Wendell Miller Professorship of English at his alma mater, the University of Iowa, as a member of its Writers’ Workshop faculty. Canin’s third book, The Palace Thief (1994), is a collection of short stories, which won the California Book Award in the year of its publication. Some of the stories were also published in illustrious literary journals; for example, the titular story “The Palace Thief” featured in Issue 128 of The Paris Review in 1993, while “Batorsag and Szerelem” was in the October 1993 issue of Granta magazine.

Plot Summary 

The Palace Thief is composed of four short stories. While the stories are coherent separately, they are bound together in the collection by the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ theory that character is destiny. In all four stories, the protagonists’ specific dispositions influence their actions and subsequent events, rather than being taken in by the plot.

In the first story, “The Accountant,” a middle-aged narrator with a quintessential business degree and a long-time position at a successful company becomes entranced with the success of a childhood friend, whom he remembers as reckless and unstable. The narrator, Abba Roth, describes his life with an air of superiority and stuffiness—his wife demands to go by her full first name, Scheherazade, and he describes the success of his family based on materialism, mentioning a Shetland pony, a swimming pool, and week-long vacations in a cabin on Lake Tahoe.

Abba’s boyhood friend Eugene Peters asks Abba to invest in a new firm manufacturing a magnetic oil plug. Always cautious, Abba refuses, watching as his life remains the same and Eugene’s life becomes increasingly prosperous. Abba is denied partnership in his firm while he watches Eugene use imagination and social instinct to get ahead. The story ends with a baseball game, in which Abba performs better than his friend, but Eugene wins the MVP trophy, causing Abba to reflect on his envy and the reasons he thinks so poorly about himself and his own life.

The second story, “Batorsag and Szerelem,” gives an account of the year 1973, when William learns the truth about his eccentric, mathematical genius brother Clive, who speaks in his own language. William gets close to, and eventually loses his virginity to, Clive’s pretend girlfriend, Sandra. However, Clive is gay and engages in a relationship with his friend Elliot. When the boys’ parents discover the truth about Clive, they reject him, and William has the satisfaction of being the preferred son. However, 15 years later, when Clive is dying in a New York hospital, William is wracked with guilt over his former selfish wish.

The third story, “City of Broken Hearts,” is written in the third person and is the most straightforward of all the stories. Wilson Kohler’s wife leaves him for another man at his firm, and Kohler falls into a deep depression that he treats with womanizing, telling childish and inappropriate jokes, and becoming an avid baseball fan. His son, Brent, eventually saves him. Brent recognizes that his father’s behavior is the result of grief and loneliness and helps lead him back to both a solid partner and a true version of himself.

The final story, “The Palace Thief,” tells of history teacher Hundert’s relationship with Sedgewick Bell, the privileged, lazy son of a populist senator. Mr. Hundert tells the story of the day he discovered that Sedgewick Bell was cheating in a Roman history competition in front of many graduates and parents—including Sedgewick’s high-powered father, Senator Bell. Sedgewick nearly wins by cheating, and Hundert reports it to the headmaster who writes him off, saying that the misconduct should be ignored because of the presence of the senator in the audience. Many decades later, Sedgewick invites Mr. Hundert to a rematch, where he answers all but one question correctly. Again, Hundert realizes that Sedgewick is cheating, and again he chooses to do nothing. At the end of the story, the two men face each other, reflecting on their own behaviors, realizing that nothing has changed in the decades they have been apart.

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Story 1