(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In this, Mary McCarthy’s first published story, the initial two sentences summarize the whole. The remainder of the narrative details the careful, ritualized process by which the protagonist makes her way from a clandestine affair to public disclosure and impending divorce. McCarthy’s satiric view of bourgeois society is never sharper than in this study of how a bored woman transforms her life from a series of “timekillers, matters of routine” to one of “perilous and dramatic adventures,” merely by ending her marriage in three steps. This is a story wherein the third-person narrative voice is orchestrated with a care matched only by the protagonist’s own arrangement of events.

The young wife loves groups of three: the love triangle that she has brought into being, the three-times-a-week minimum for social outings during which she can “tremble . . . on the exquisite edge of self-betrayal,” and above all the three-part sequence into which she organizes her drama of marital disintegration and from each of which she squeezes all the excitement she can before moving on to the next.

First, during the period of secrecy, the “subterranean courtship,” there is the Public Appearances routine. Its main advantages come from its “outlawry,” which tends to force the illicit lovers into an especially strong dependency and which gives the young woman intense feelings of superiority. This latter derives from her feeling that she has “bested” her husband and can feel good about her restraint in not gloating over the victory. Then too, she can feel superior to the...

(The entire section is 653 words.)