Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like most British citizens of the period in which this story is set, the three characters are intensely conscious of their social status. The seasonal guest, Mrs. Garnett, gives orders to the landlady, Mrs. Freeport, who in turn gives orders to her regular lodger, Lily. Each follows orders from another but only grudgingly. Mrs. Freeport thinks her late cousin was crazy to indulge his wife, Mrs. Garnett, even to take her for a wife. Lily, meanwhile, thinks that the aristocratic life is her future; she no more wants to go back to work than she wants to go back to Mr. Littel. She is a shrewd observer of the upper class, well aware of its moral shortcomings but not about to let moral shortcomings get in her way. She is learning how to be a subtle cheapskate, just like the other characters.

It is Lily, above all, who makes the “Acceptance of Their Ways” in watching the richer widows and seeing through their ruses but still wanting to share their way of life. Each woman seems to realize that she needs the others: Lily cannot afford Nice for more than a few days each year; Mrs. Freeport cannot afford a servant; and Mrs. Garnett does not have better prospects for the next Christmas season. Each woman also has her secrets. Lily has her diary and her drinking habit; Mrs. Freeport has the gravesite to visit; and Mrs. Garnett has a book on optimism to which she turns when others would engage in conversation. However, they need one another in subtle ways, and so must be accepting.

What these women cannot accept are the ways of the Italian people among whom they live at the moment. Mrs. Garnett is regularly offended by bus drivers and others who try to serve her, and she is constantly offensive in turn. She wants new travel options and is annoyed that the Suez Crisis of 1956 has made travel to Egypt out of the question. Mrs. Freeport hates Italian cuisine, and Lily is more comfortable with the English way of life. Their expatriate world is a narrow world, but as narrow worlds go, it seems a pleasant enough place in which to exist.