The Day Stalin Died Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The day begins badly. The narrator receives a letter from Aunt Emma in Bournemouth, reminding her of a promise to take her cousin Jessie to have her picture taken that afternoon. Aunt Emma, Jessie’s mother, wants the photos because she intends to show them to a television producer who visits his older brother in the boardinghouse where she and her daughter live. Aunt Emma hopes that Jessie will prove sufficiently photogenic to induce the producer to whisk her off to London to be a television star. Jessie is a broad-shouldered girl of about twenty-five who looks eighteen.

The narrator, forgetting all about the promise, has made other plans, which she is now obliged to cancel. She quickly tries to call off a date that she made with an American screenwriter named Bill. Bill, it seems, had some trouble with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was black-listed, and could not find work in the United States. He is also having difficulty getting a permit to live in Great Britain. The narrator is trying to help him find a secretary and has gotten in touch with an old friend from South Africa, Beatrice, who is out of a job. The date was arranged to introduce the two. The narrator believes that these friends will get along because both have been involved in left-wing causes. (As she subsequently discovers, they prove not at all compatible.) It takes the narrator an hour to get in touch with Bill, only to discover that he has forgotten about the appointment. She then sends Beatrice a telegram because Beatrice has no phone.

Having freed the afternoon for Jessie, the narrator starts to get some work done in what is left of the morning. She has just begun when she is interrupted by a call from one of her Communist Party comrades, who says that she wants to see the narrator at lunchtime. The caller, Jean, is the narrator’s self-appointed “guide or mentor towards a correct political viewpoint.” Jean is the daughter of a bishop and has worked unquestioningly for the party for the past thirty years. Having divorced her husband when he became a member of the Labour Party following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, she now lives alone in a sitting room with a portrait of Joseph Stalin over her bed. Jean is disturbed about a remark that the narrator made the week before at a party meeting, that “a certain amount of dirty work must be going on in the Soviet Union.” Jean arrives, bringing her sandwiches with her in a brown paper bag, and berates the narrator for flippancy. She tells her of the necessity of “unremitting vigilance on the part of the working class.” She says that the only way that an intellectual with the narrator’s background can gain a correct, working-class point of view is to work harder in the party to attain “a really sound working-class attitude.” Jean recommends reading the verbatim transcript of the purge trials of the 1930’s as an antidote to a vacillating attitude toward Soviet justice.

Jean’s visit leaves the narrator, “for one reason or another,” depressed. However, there is not much time to brood; no sooner has Jean left than a call comes from Cousin Jessie, who asks if the narrator can meet her in twenty minutes outside a dress shop, as she has decided to buy new clothes in which to be photographed. The narrator therefore quits work for the day and takes a cab to her rendezvous.

Jessie is waiting outside the dress shop...

(The entire section is 1390 words.)