Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Jean Stafford chose the title of this story for a collection of her stories, suggesting that people create for themselves interior castles that allow them to retreat from the hurts dealt them by society. Pansy has found no social space in the real world to inhabit. Her few tentative offerings of herself having been rejected, she has shut herself up like a clam. The clam motif is present throughout the story, in the clam peddler from whose cries she flees, and in the pink pearl that is her favorite image of her beautiful, fragile brain.

Pansy is unable to “close the valves of her attention/ Like stone,” as Emily Dickinson’s narrator does. The world, in the form of Dr. Nicholas, pushes in with pain and demands. The interior castle is invaded and cannot be defended. Dr. Nicholas’s name is ambiguous, suggesting both Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) and Old Nick. Through his skill as a surgeon, he wants to make Pansy fit to go back to society, while she wishes to remain isolated in her head. To inhabit the fantasy world permanently is not an option; Pansy must submit to him and lose her means of escape. She knows that the time will come “when she could no longer live in seclusion, she must go into the world again and must be equipped to live in it; she banally acknowledged that she must be able to breathe.”

Pansy’s consciousness is presented as tentative and wavering, crystallized only through her experience of extreme pain. It seems that...

(The entire section is 452 words.)