Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Perhaps the most important character type in Christina Stead’s work is the tyrannical father of a daughter who longs to escape. Such characters appear in her novels Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), For Love Alone (1944), and The Man Who Loved Children (1940). Stead’s work is highly autobiographical, and it is assumed that the character is based on her own domineering father, from whom she herself struggled to escape.

Honor Lawrence, the puzzleheaded girl of the title, is another heroine whose life is shaped by her overbearing father, Tommaseo. Tommaseo is an immigrant who, by the meanest penny-pinching, managed to set himself up as a fruit and vegetable dealer. He watched every bite his children ate, denied them clothes and pleasures, and took the key whenever he left the tenement, forcing his wife and children to huddle on the stairs. Worst of all were the violent scenes that he made at home and in public. Now that the children are older, he expects them to give him all their pay. Honor is still living with her father and longing for freedom when the story opens. Much of her motivation may be seen as attempts to acquire this freedom: her odd intrusions into other people’s lives, her refusal to work when she lives on the Ohio farm, and her two unsuccessful marriages.

Another factor that influences Honor is the position of women, biologically and socially. Both Beatrice Debrett and Honor are women who dislike sexual relations and marry only because they have few other options. Beatrice becomes a lonely, embittered woman by the end of the story, and Honor grows poorer and sicker until she dies. Honor Lawrence plays out a major theme in Stead’s work: the struggle to maintain one’s integrity in the face of society’s rules. Some of Stead’s characters manage to survive intact, but others, like Honor, are defeated. They remain true to their vision at any cost, and go under because they cannot compromise their individuality.