A Reliable Wife Summary
by Robert Goolrick

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Extended Summary

Wisconsin, Fall 1907

Ralph Truitt stands alone at the train station, waiting. He is alone, as always, and the 4:00 train is late. After he lost his wife and children, his hopes and dreams twenty years ago, only his rigid expectations sustained and continue to sustain him. It is October 17. People and activity surround him, but he is insulated from them. Ralph Truitt is fifty-four years old, and almost everyone in town works for him in one way or another, which is the reason for their deference. He knows they pity him, just as he pities himself. He has never recovered from his tragic losses and spends his life longing for what he no longer has.

Today they all know what he is waiting for, and he hates that they know and are watching. He has become bitter and angry, but today he has some hope in his desolation. In his hand are the letter and the photograph of the woman who will soon be his wife. He has not met her, but this much younger woman is coming to be his bride. Catherine Land, according to the letter, was once a missionary and now resides in a Christian boarding house in Chicago. She has seen much suffering in the world and now only wants a home and someone with whom to share it.

Catherine Land is also disillusioned with her life and ponders her future as she makes her way by train to her future husband. Her life in Virginia had a good beginning. After her mother died, though, she had “bitten and bludgeoned her way through life,” and now she is afraid she will die without love or money. Unlike Ralph’s resentment and anger, her bitterness is not evident on her face.

In the comfort of her luxury train compartment, she anticipates the end of six months worth of scheming. She likes beginnings. They are generally sweet and pleasant, unlike endings, which are almost always bitter and unpleasant. It is the middle that has her worried, for it is in the middle that plans can go wrong with even the tiniest misstep. Ralph Truitt posted an ad for a “reliable wife,” and she is on her way to meet him. First, she must create the woman he expects to marry. She undresses and throws her silk garments out the train window; she replaces them with a homely dress she made herself, as her mother once taught her. Two others just like it are packed in her shabby suitcase, along with a precious blue bottle with a Chinese label. She removes her expensive jewelry and sews it into the hem of her dress. It is her insurance in case her plan does not work. She does not need to rehearse the life she has created for him, the stories and the memories and the songs that have made her who he expects her to be. She puts on her missionary cape and demurely walks off the train to meet her future husband.

Catherine is afraid she will not know him, but when she sees the despair on his face, his loneliness in the midst of the crowd, she knows it is him: “He looked so rich and so alone.” For a moment she is afraid. She had not planned what she would say to him; she only knows she must endure until spring. Ralph is angry when he sees she is not the plain girl from the picture he grasps so tightly. When she tries to explain, he nearly drags her to his carriage to escape the gawking and whispering around them. She explains he would not have accepted her pretty face, and she is right.

He tells her he has the only car in town but it does not do well in snow, and he says people here go insane and do outrageous things in the winter. Their ride is silent and uncomfortable. He is thinking of what people will say when he sends this pretty girl back to Chicago; she is thinking of the contrast between this rustic wilderness on a cold, snowy night and her life as a beer-hall girl in the heart of a lively city.

Suddenly a deer darts across the road, and the horses react. Ralph is thrown from the carriage and Catherine is finally able to control the crazed animals, though her hem rips and her jewelry is lost. When she finally gets back to him, he is bleeding from a gash on...

(The entire section is 6,815 words.)