Study Guide

The Postman Always Rings Twice

by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Postman Always Rings Twice was Cain’s first novel and came to stand as his finest work of fiction. It is both classical Cain, with its hard-boiled, first-person narrative of a wrenching love triangle, wish fulfillment, and retribution, and classical in its tragic theme and episodic structure. A very attractive young woman, Cora, is unhappily married to Nick Papadakis, the proprietor of a restaurant. A drifter, Frank Chambers, falls in love with Cora, hires on as Nick’s employee, and enjoys Cora’s requital of his love. The adulterers successfully conspire to murder Nick, thereby gaining his restaurant business and their own life together. Much of their planning materializes through fortuitous as well as engineered accidents.

It is also an accident that finally destroys both of them, Cora as accident victim and Frank as the victim of circumstances. Having been acquitted of contriving the accident that was supposed to have taken the life of Nick Papadakis, a charge of which he was actually guilty, Frank is now ironically convicted of contriving the accident that killed Cora, despite his innocence. The structure, like that of Greek tragedy and classical literature in general, is symmetrical: Cora and Frank are denied free union by societal and economic restrictions, Cora and Frank achieve free union through their crime, Cora and Frank are destroyed precisely in the context of their achievement of free union. The symmetry is that of...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

The Postman Always Rings Twice Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

For years, Frank Chambers has been in trouble with the law, drifting back and forth through California and always looking for a con or a dollar. When he comes to Nick Papadakis’s restaurant, he sees the same old dreams invested in a tiny hash house just like all the restaurants down the road. The one difference is that this hash house contains Cora, a svelte, beautiful, sensuous woman who had married her Greek husband to get out of an even worse life as a waitress in Los Angeles. She had won a beauty contest in the Midwest and taken a bus to California. Finding her prospects to be nonexistent, she married a man who at least had the advantage of owning property.

The attraction between Cora and Frank is almost instantaneous, and before Frank is there a week, the two sleep together. Cora is the one who first proposes getting rid of her husband so she and Frank can run away. Frank plans to have Cora bludgeon her husband while he is in the bath. Immediately afterward, Frank is to climb a ladder into the bathroom and remove the body. From the beginning things go wrong. A passing motorcycle officer stops to chat with Frank and probably sees the ladder. Then, just when Cora hits her husband, all the lights in the restaurant go out, which is noticed by the officer as he leaves. Frank rushes in to find Cora standing in the bathroom and her husband splashing around in the water. Quickly, they patch him up and call an ambulance. They have no idea what happened to the lights. Eventually, Nick is taken to a hospital, where Frank, Cora, and several police officers watch him, no one sure what he will say. When he wakes up, he says something about slipping in the shower. The motorcycle officer is suspicious and accompanies Frank and Cora back to the restaurant to see what had happened to the fuse box. They find a dead cat there, obviously electrocuted.

Frank and Cora enjoy each other’s company while Nick is in the hospital, but when he returns one week later he tells Cora that he wants a son. She is appalled by the prospect and turns to Frank again. She tries to tempt him by...

(The entire section is 855 words.)