In a story reflective of Old New York's stifled Victorian society, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade are thrown into intimacy simply by their social class because they differ markedly in personalities and view each other "through the wrong end of [their] little telescopes," underscoring the theme of appearances differing from reality.
After their daughters depart for the evening, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley sit on the parapet in Rome and entertain their own thoughts about each other, thoughts that are colored by their past experiences.
- Grace Ansley (as perceived by Alida Slade)
Grace is shy, "deprecating," sentimental, old-fashioned, lacking in self-confidence and assertiveness. The narrator observes, "She was evidently far less sure than her companion of herself and her rights in the world." She is unimaginative, dull, a knitter, a "nullity," a "museum specimen of old New York," and "less articulate than her friend." Mrs. Slade would have told others if asked that Grace Ansley had been lovely, "far more beautiful than her daughter," a duplicate of her husband.
- Alida Slade (as perceived by Grace Ansley)
Alida is "fuller and higher in color" than her friend, self-confident, has a superior attitude, and is surprisingly (to Mrs. Ansley) sentimental. She is bored with her life without her husband, and is "awfully brilliant, but not as brilliant as she thinks." She was rather dashing and "vivid" when she was young, but now is a woman who is "disappointed"; she is more disappointed with her life now than Mrs. Ansley is because she entertained prestigious people for years while her husband was alive.
From these descriptions of Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade, it is clear that their personalities differ. Mrs. Slade is much more self-confident, dominant, disappointed in life, and envious, while Mrs. Ansley is more sensitive and sentimental.