Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
“Aunt Carrie” is told in two parts, first from the perspective of the narrator as a child and later as the childhood experience is re-evaluated by the narrator as an adult.
The setting for the first portion of the story is a train station. The nine-year-old narrator is excited by her first visit to a train station. She is awed by the dark and noisy trains and by her imaginings of Pittsburgh, the point of departure for her father, whom she, her mother, and her Aunt Carrie have come to meet. Ernest Price has been away attending a convention and is about to return. Before her father’s train arrives, the girl is confused by the odd behavior of her mother, who is acting tense and speaking in a weird tone of voice; somewhat inexplicably, she has brought Aunt Carrie along to the station.
The young narrator has difficulty believing that her aunt is just a few years older than her mother although she realizes that Aunt Carrie is not considered physically attractive, and that she seems old and worn. She senses that the older woman wears lipstick to make herself pretty but that her effort is ineffective. Part of her impressions are formed by offhand negative comments about Aunt Carrie that her mother has made, so her own views of her aunt are not sympathetic.
When her father arrives, the girl runs into his arms. While he holds her, something happens among the adults that she does not understand. Aunt Carrie seems upset; pulling distractedly on a hankie, she is covered by her coat and retreats behind the large pregnant physique of Mrs. Price, where the girl can barely see her. Belle Price confronts her husband, but her words are meaningless to the child. She refers to Aunt Carrie as his “lovely sister” and informs Mr. Price that she once read a letter that Aunt Carrie wrote to him years ago. All three adults are immobilized by this announcement, and the child fears that her parents are about to have an argument. Her father looks like he is about to cry, and Aunt Carrie is actually crying. She decides that it was not nice of her mother to call Aunt Carrie lovely when she is not, and that this must be the source of the tension.
The story then shifts from the vignette at the train station to a moment years later, when the narrator is grown up and living in the same city as Aunt Carrie. She has just asked Aunt Carrie to tea. Their dialogue sheds light on the cryptic scene on the station platform and answers some other questions about her parents that have stayed in the narrator’s mind.
Soon after the incident at the station the narrator and her parents moved to Florida, and the narrator has always wondered why. She asks Aunt Carrie if she knows. After some encouragement, Aunt Carrie tells her niece her family history: how her father deserted their family when she was thirteen and how she raised her younger brother Ernest while her mother and the older siblings went out to work. Homely and untalented, she had little status within the family. At seventeen she was married off to an older man and kept house for him until he died. Left a widow without means at nineteen, she moved back into her mother’s home. One day while hanging laundry there, she was forcefully attracted to a young man coming down the street.
As she recalls this attraction and the sensuality and sexual consummation that accompanied it, the story is revealed to be a tale of incest, for it is her brother Ernest with whom she became involved. After confessing this secret, she tells her niece that she ended the affair because she realized it was crazy. Ernest went on to meet and marry the narrator’s mother and to establish a successful career and family. Carrie then became the caretaker of the neighborhood, baby-sitting her brother’s and other children, and generally being available for people in need. After Carrie and Ernest left the brief incestuous period of their lives behind them, it came to seem as if it had actually happened to other people. When Ernest was away in Pittsburgh, his wife discovered a letter that Carrie had written to him after their first sexual encounter, reassuring him about his worth and encouraging him to hold his head up with pride. All this immediately preceded the encounter at the train station, the move to Florida, and Carrie’s ostracism from the family.
The narrator then asks Carrie how she knew the details about her mother’s finding her letter. Carrie explains that after the narrator’s maternal grandmother, Grandma Evans, was widowed, she called Carrie one day, befriended her, and told her the story. The story of Aunt Carrie ends with the niece and the aunt bonded together and the narrator pledging to see Carrie again in the future.