Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story’s title is a cultural allusion of the sort that Patrick likes to drop on people, looking shocked if they do not understand it. He tells Rose that “The Beggar Maid” is the title of a famous work of art, a painting of a poor but beautiful young woman who wins the love of a king and marries him. Rose assumes that that is how he sees himself—as a gentleman rescuing a waif. It is not, however, how she sees herself. She feels no need to be rescued and often must reassure Patrick that he is not a weakling.

Rose only remembers one book from Patrick’s shelves, but his fascination with that book says a good deal about his attitude toward her and her own difficulty with his attitude. The book is Robert Graves’s The White Goddess: A Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948). It represents a genuine tribute to the goddess and the muse but also a dilemma for women interested in the arts, as it sees their job as being to inspire poets, rather than to be poets themselves. When Patrick insists on calling plump and dark Rose his “White Goddess,” she calls him her “White God” and throws snow in his face to make her point. The snow jolts him into doing something manly for once, but when they climb out of the snowbank he returns at once to coddling apologies.

The dramatic question of this story is not whether Rose will win Patrick’s love (she does so at once) or even whether she will win his family over (which she can do only when grandchildren are in the offing). The question is whether she will keep him. Even before Rose throws snow at Patrick, and especially after he apologizes for retaliating, she senses something wrong with their relationship. Their physical relationship is good, once she can stop pretending and start enjoying herself. Patrick’s intentions are entirely noble, but he sees himself and Rose as being from “two different worlds.” He says so, and she cannot forget. He thinks his own world is better, but Rose regards her own as equally valid and much more comfortable. Rose is uncomfortable in Hanratty only when she brings Patrick there and feels obliged to try to speak as he does.