Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The primary themes of the story can be formulated as a series of conflicts: emotion or spirit versus convention or habit, the aesthetic versus the pragmatic, communion versus loneliness or self-centeredness, and self-knowledge versus willful ignorance. Each of the businesspeople is jarred out of his dull, self-centered routine by the intrusion of nature and by a sudden, piercing awareness of beauty. When each businessperson becomes slightly uneasy about appearing to be romantic—an impractical admirer of beauty—in his neighbor’s eyes, however, the brief communion of the pair is broken off, and each one returns to the world of practical events and financial matters reported in and symbolized by the morning newspaper each one carries. Each man resumes living within the restrictive confines of his row house, his daily routine, and his society’s conventions (so restrictive that because the neighbors’ wives have not met, they have not met socially, either, though they have lived next door to each other for five years).
The flight from self-knowledge to willful ignorance is suggested in the story’s last sentence: Nilson refuses to analyze the unaccustomed emotions that have disturbed him, instead deflecting his attention to his morning newspaper. Failing to acknowledge that he is bothered by the thought of communing with another human being and by the recognition of an aesthetic or romantic side of himself that is mirrored in Tandram, Nilson escapes to the pragmatic world of quantification and measurement. Nilson quantifies not only in meditating on stock prices such as those of Tintos (in the story’s beginning) but also in pondering the disturbing sensation, of which he seeks the exact physical location (just under his fifth rib) and physical cause (wondering whether it could be something that he ate the night before). Thus, he does not realize that what bothers him are nonmaterialistic things missing from his life: beauty, friendship, and emotion.