Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In many of her stories, Elizabeth Spencer examines the social pressures of life in small southern towns, in which all actions are open to public scrutiny; family obligations stifle individuality; class distinctions are strong and even oppressive; and, as William Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” Tom Beavers grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, the son of a woman who created a scandal, and he was reared by an aunt considered odd by many of the townspeople. Frances Harvey, on the other hand, is from one of the town’s best families and lives in one of its grand houses. Tyrannized by a mother who is described as wicked and mean, she seems destined to remain a spinster. The mother, however, is somewhat humanized for the reader when it appears that her suicide was an act of love, a drastic measure taken because she had never learned how to express that love to her daughter. Thus the rigid social pattern of the town stifles emotions, and only through a dramatic, shocking act of locking up the house and fleeing can the couple hope to make a life for themselves.

As in many of her stories, Spencer stresses the significance of place, particularly in the South. Both the town and the house seem to be characters in the story: the town as a composite of public opinion, the house as a distillation of the spirit of the dead mother. The powerful influence of place and the collective memory of the past that adheres to it can, as the narrator points out, deprive characters of their individual identities and make them ghosts. In one telling passage near the conclusion, Spencer writes that “In Richton, the door to the past was always wide open, and what came in through it and went out of it had made people ’different.’” At some unnoticed moments in their lives, fact becomes faith, life turns into legend, and people become bemused custodians of the grave. It is Tom’s perception of such a moment that provides salvation from such a fate for Frances.