Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of this story immediately introduces its theme and literal content. The phrase “the little woman,” usually employed by a husband to refer to his wife, does not necessarily indicate the height of the woman. From one point of view, the term is affectionate; from another, the stress on the diminutive refers to the wife’s subordinate position. Benson seems to stress the latter, negative interpretation.

The story maintains this stress on semantics. For example, Ralph takes Penny’s side in her disagreement with Louise Matson by commenting, “You may be little, but you aren’t small.” Ralph, however, eventually decides that Penny’s problem is that her worldview is small when he fails to talk her into extending her friendships and leaving the small world of their home. By the conclusion of the story, Ralph observes that Penny “seemed to grow smaller and smaller until there was nothing much left of her but a pink taffeta dress and a pink ribbon.” The use of the name Penny—the smallest denomination of U.S. currency—is surely no accident.

Benson uses metaphors and similes extensively to support the theme. Penny pretends to denigrate her small feet with the phrase, “disgraceful little Chinese feet,” when she is actually quite proud of them. The reference reminds the reader of a culture that once physically crippled its women because it supported the stereotype that small is better for a female. Another equivocal comparison appears early in the story when Ralph first describes Penny, dressed in short skirts...

(The entire section is 636 words.)