Study Guide

The Gioconda Smile

by Aldous Huxley

The Gioconda Smile Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Henry Hutton, a prosperous English landowner, flirts with Miss Janet Spence, an unmarried woman in her late thirties. After toying with her affections, Hutton hurriedly departs to take home his young Cockney mistress, Doris, and then to return to his wife, who is an almost complete invalid. Mr. and Mrs. Hutton have reached an impasse in their marriage: He is terminally bored with the relationship, while she approaches life with the querulous disapproval of the chronically ill. In an effort to change the routine, and to provide some secret spice to daily events, Hutton invites Miss Spence to dine with them.

Although Mrs. Hutton begins the meal in fine spirits, saying “I do really feel rather better today,” she unwisely eats a plate of stewed currants that the doctor has forbidden. Soon after, Hutton brings his wife her medicine, and Mrs. Hutton, now feeling ill, retires to her bed. After Miss Spence leaves, Hutton tells his wife that he is going to see a neighbor about a war memorial but actually slips away with Doris, his mistress. He returns home to find that his wife has died during his absence.

After his wife’s death, Hutton vows that he will control his lusts and desires, including his foolish affair with Doris. Within a week, however, he and Doris are again together. In an impetuous moment, he proposes marriage to Doris—a marriage that must be kept secret for a “decent interval.”

During a visit to Miss Spence, Hutton is shocked when she openly declares her love for him, claiming that “I think everyone has a right to a certain amount of happiness, don’t you?” Unable to reply, Hutton flees into the night. Soon he and Doris are in Florence, where he continues to find himself unable to resist the lure of female flesh.

Meanwhile, Miss Spence, angered at Hutton’s marriage to Doris, is spreading the rumor in England that Hutton murdered his wife in order to marry Doris. After his wife is exhumed, an autopsy finds lethal amounts of arsenic in her body. Extradited to England, Hutton is tried, found guilty, and executed for the murder of his wife.

The story ends with an exhausted Miss Spence admitting to Dr. Libbard that she herself poisoned Mrs. Hutton. The bemused doctor writes her a prescription for a sleeping draught.