Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Mary grows up to a certain extent in the course of the story’s action, which takes place over three days. In a sense, however, the story also presents an example of the regrettable erosion of the child’s ability to be sustained by imagination. Reality impinges on Mary’s imagined world, and once that influence has begun, its course cannot be reversed. At the end of the story, Mary finds how fragile is imagination, because the mere act of trying consciously to shore up her make-believe world erodes it further. She searches about to find a reason why her troops cannot practice their mountain-goat fighting on the steps up to Franklin’s house, but “the reason was not going to come to her. She had begun to cheat now, and she knew it would never come.”
Rather than suggest merely that this kind of erosion of imagination is a wholly negative thing, Bowles also suggests that it is a necessary compromise with the world that other people inhabit. Not to accept that fact, she suggests, is a failing. This view is made clear in her characterization of Mary, who, while she is scrupulously fair and almost egalitarian in dealing with her troops, is also petulant when dealing with Franklin. Similarly, while she is self-assured in her clay pit, she is uncomfortable in the presence of Franklin’s mother. While any variance from the habitual is a threat to her narrowly construed picture of the world, every challenge to her make-believe world has a subtle maturing, socializing influence on her.
That Bowles considers this process of compromise to have its costs is clear in such things as her characterization of Franklin’s mother as a gossipy and ill-finished adult who could hardly be considered a compelling model for Mary. This view is reinforced by the triumphant tone Bowles ejects into sentences that describe how satisfying Mary’s egocentricity can be: “She was rapidly perfecting a psychological mechanism which enabled her to forget, for long stretches of time, that her parents existed.”