Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

White’s ability to explore a profound theme underneath the surface imagery of a decaying, superficial urban world rests largely on his use of irony and symbolism. The chief irony is that while Ella is far more deserving of devoted love than Royal, it is Royal rather than Ella or her friend who enjoys the devotion, and he demands it instead of appreciating it. Doubly ironic is the turn of plot that introduces a deformed man to serve as Ella’s liberating object of desire when she herself has been emotionally deformed by her lifelong repression of desire, particularly in the recent care of her invalid husband (an emotional invalid far more than a physical one). The crowning irony of the conclusion is that Ella believes she has been adulterous in the explosion of her sensuality, despite her status as widow and Royal’s callous indifference to her affection. Instead of recognizing the redemption of love, Ella, in typically self-deprecating fashion, assumes responsibility for her would-be lover’s death. The unifying irony of the entire story is that Ella’s very goodness is the source of her own undoing.

Through a precise use of images, White further complicates the story by his use of symbols. The traffic jams reverberate with Ella’s repressed desire just as the accidents foreshadow both the chance encounter and the man’s death. The cinerarias are pointedly phallic in shape and in Ella’s perception of them, just as the garden itself becomes her object of desire while she cares for Royal. The garden tunnel, where the cinerarias are located, seems strikingly vaginal as Ella dreams of meeting the man within it. With the use of obvious sexual symbolism, White can suggest something far more important to Ella than sexual fulfillment: the desire for love and the desire to express love freely, not mere sensual gratification. The symbolism, then, becomes a mask for the quest of love. Even Ella’s kisses in the mock mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of the final scene symbolize her attempt to love both of them back to life. Ella’s attempt to save the dying man is a last attempt to save her own momentary wholeness on which her goodness rests, and gasps.