Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story presents a personal crisis of a kind that is common in the lives of working and middle-class men and women: the dilemma of choosing between satisfying their own personal needs and meeting the needs of their dependents. The immediate circumstances of their lives prevent them from having both. For example, for Elijah to meet the needs of the family to which he is committed by marriage and parenthood, he must sacrifice a personally satisfying worklife and the object that he sees as the means of fulfilling his dream of emotional satisfaction. If he chooses to serve himself, he will betray and neglect his family.

One approach to resolving dilemmas of this kind is to identify one’s personal values and rank them, then choose what is the most valuable, even at the cost of losing what is less valuable. Clarification often involves a realistic look at one’s life, in order to see if a valued aspect might actually be an illusion. Cyrus Colter’s story dramatizes that process in the life of an ordinary person. In Elijah’s case, everything that is at stake is strongly charged with emotion and seems to be very valuable; therefore the process of clarification, ranking, decision making, and right action is difficult and painful. Colter does not promise that his character’s life will henceforth be entirely happy. The story leaves it to the reader to decide whether Elijah makes the wise choice.