Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

In addition to the powerful shock at the end of the story, when Mrs. Allen must realize how completely different a life the other woman has invented for herself, Elizabeth Taylor’s story features three interrelated themes: human alienation, class differences in post-World War II British society, and the disaffection of...

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In addition to the powerful shock at the end of the story, when Mrs. Allen must realize how completely different a life the other woman has invented for herself, Elizabeth Taylor’s story features three interrelated themes: human alienation, class differences in post-World War II British society, and the disaffection of women living in this society. To her surprise, Mrs. Allen must recognize how little she really knows about Mrs. Lacey and how alienated the two women are from each other. Despite the fact that they have worked and chatted together for many years, Mrs. Allen never had an inkling of Mrs. Lacey’s nightly escapades nor the fact that she is capable of using her imagination to tell such a wild story about Mrs. Allen.

This theme of human alienation is reinforced by the picture that the author paints of the married lives of the two women. Humphrey Allen is a remote presence who comes home late at night and does not seem to show much interest in the details of his wife’s life. Mr. Lacey, a small, worn-out man twenty years older than his wife, does not appear to command the loving respect of his wife, so that the married couples live quite apart emotionally.

The characters’ alienation from each other is powerfully reinforced by their class differences. Their different classes clearly separate and differentiate the two women from each other. Mrs. Lacey’s remarkable fecundity also reflects an ironic allusion to her status as a proletarian because the word literally refers to the ample offspring born to the working classes in the times of economist Karl Marx, who popularized the idea of the proletariat. Even though her body is no longer attractive in a conventional sense, it obviously does not fail to attract the father of her fourth child.

On the other hand, Mrs. Allen’s life revolves around dreams, aspirations, and limitations of the upper middle class of mid-twentieth century Great Britain. Her dreams for her children include a romp in the garden of her suburban house and contain the vision of sending off her oldest boy to that traditional British prerequisite of the middle and upper classes, the boarding school. Mrs. Allen does not rebel and contents herself with her tea at four-thirty every afternoon.

The theme of women’s unhappiness with the highly gendered class society of the 1950’s in England is a powerful thread unifying the story. What may contribute to the intensity of Mrs. Allen’s blush is the fact that Mrs. Lacey has given her husband a picture of Mrs. Allen that completely contradicts her reality and even her dreams. Raised with the traditional expectations of a woman of her upper-middle-class standing, Mrs. Allen dreamt of finding fulfillment as a mother, wife, and homemaker. When reality fails to fulfill her expectations, she grows deeply disaffected and begins to envy Mrs. Lacey for her children and even her proletarian privilege to drink a beer in public.

Mrs. Lacey, on the other hand, refers to her children and even her marriage more as a burden than as a source of fulfillment. She is jealous of the material possessions of her employer and clearly refuses to live up to society’s expectations. She transgresses by neglecting her children and cheating on her husband, breaking the taboos that would limit her life, and using her imagination to create a near-perfect alibi. The story suggests that, perhaps, Mrs. Lacey’s flagrant acts of rebellion are also a source of Mrs. Allen’s deep blush, who could never even think of acting in this way.

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