The opening sentence of Sinclair Ross’s short story "The Painted Door" quickly make clear to the reader the remoteness of the farm on which John and his wife live.
Straight across the hills it was five miles from John’s farm to his father’s.
The impression of the farm’s isolation seems intensified by the words that describe the wintry scene, especially as they relate to John’s wife, Ann, and her point of view. She is looking “moodily” out the window at the frozen landscape while contemplating her husband’s impending absence.
In the clear, bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region strangely alien to life.
These lines convey a real sense of the atmosphere of the story. The reader is meant to feel Ann’s sense of bleakness and abandonment and her struggle to give way to what she knows John needs to do for his father. John needs to make sure his father will be okay should a storm arrive.
When John mentions Steven, a neighbor, the words used to describe Ann’s reaction are quite telling: “She glanced up sharply.” She then suggests that if Steven is coming to visit, John should shave his beard. She seems to feel self-conscious on John’s behalf, pointing out that “he’ll be shaved, though.”
As the day—and the story—proceeds, Ross uses language to convey Ann’s discontent. She wants to alter the passage of time by painting, so she doesn’t have to endure the painful loneliness for longer than necessary. Her feelings are swayed by her own thoughts, though, as shown by Ross in these lines:
Eager and hopeful first; then clenched, rebellious, lonely.
The language used to describe her thought process is intended to illustrate how cut off she feels, even from her husband. Consider this line about John’s tendency to sacrifice himself and his time in order to make some extra money:
That it all made was to deprive her of his companionship, to make him a little duller, older, uglier than he might otherwise have been.
These words, and others in this part of the story, are meant to convey the message that John misses the point, somehow, in trying to provide for his wife.
Later, when Steven arrives, Ross’s language conveys something new. Steven seems oddly assured that John won’t be coming back that night, and there is something almost sinister about his certainty.
Was he right? Was that why he smiled? Why he seemed to wait, expectant and assured?
The author, writing from Ann’s viewpoint, places John and Steven side-by-side—in a competition of which John has no inkling:
His was handsome, clean-shaven, young.
Ann’s guilt comes through in a haunting vision of John looking in from outside:
The face that had watched her from the darkness with its stonelike sorrow—the face that was really John—John more than his features of mere flesh and bone could ever be.
It could be said that the language used by Ross is effective because it engages emotions rather than rationality; he is able to skillfully manipulate the reader’s feelings from the beginning. The three characters are woven together: Ann’s feelings are represented by the cold and forbidding landscape. Steven is chilling, and his seemingly calculated arrival occurs just at the “right” time. John’s loyalty, pride, and dull determination exemplify his character.