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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691

“City Life” is told in the third person through an omniscient narrator. The story begins with a description of Beatrice’s childhood and follows her as she marries Peter Talbot, has three boys, and moves with her husband and children from Ithaca, New York, to an apartment in New York City. The young Beatrice’s father is a gravedigger, and her mother is a housewife. Both are alcoholics. The family lives in a one-room, windowless house, down a dirt road in the middle of the woods. The single room serves as bedroom, kitchen, and living area and provides no privacy for any family member. In addition, the house is filthy and disorderly.

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Beatrice learns about cleanliness and beauty from her teachers at school and stays away from home as much as possible. She moves out of her parents’ house two days after she graduates from high school. She goes to Buffalo and works for five years in a tool-and-die factory while she attends night school at the community college. She then enrolls full time in the elementary education program at the University of Buffalo. She meets Peter at the university and eventually loses touch with her parents.

Peter, a mathematics major, sees in Beatrice clarity, simplicity, and thrift. Though she does not enjoy making love to Peter, Beatrice feels obligated to him for providing so well for her. During their marriage, she bears three boys. They live in Ithaca, New York, a small lakeside college town. She is a clean, efficient housewife.

Peter wins a three-year fellowship to Columbia University in New York City. His salary is doubled with no teaching obligations, and his only responsibility is to do research with a man who is a leader in his field. He asks Beatrice if she wants to go. Although she knows that she has to go, she dreads losing her peaceful, clean life in Ithaca. They rent their home in Ithaca to a German couple who are scientists.

Others call the apartment in New York City a jewel, but Beatrice does not like it. The apartment is old and looks unclean to her, so she bleaches the floors and makes repairs. Her husband takes their sons to various activities on weekends while she goes to the New York museums.

A slovenly professor, on medical leave from Columbia, lives in the apartment below theirs. He complains that when her sons were playing ball, they made too much noise and caused a chunk of plaster to fall down from the ceiling, hitting him in his bed. She promises that she will make the boys stop.

When Beatrice tells her sons that they have to stop playing ball indoors, they become angry. After making them supper, she develops a severe headache and goes to bed. Before she goes to sleep, her neighbor across the hall calls to tell her that she should ignore the downstairs neighbor, whose apartment is cavelike, dirty, and smelly. When she tries to go back to sleep, she becomes obsessed with the fact that a dirty apartment is right below her clean one. She also imagines that her breathing and that of the downstairs neighbor are following the same rhythm. She stays in her bed for several days and cuts herself off completely from her family.

The downstairs neighbor returns and confronts Peter, complaining that the boys are still making too much noise. Peter defends his sons, shouting that they are entitled to play in the afternoon. He closes the door in the man’s face. Later Peter calls the neighbors together to have the downstairs neighbor evicted. They have a meeting in Peter and Beatrice’s apartment. During the meeting, Beatrice, after several days of deep depression and sleep in her bedroom, dresses and slips, unseen, downstairs to the neighbor’s apartment. She warns the neighbor that her husband and the others are trying to get him evicted. She looks around and wants to tell him that his filthy place is wonderful and beautiful, like her childhood home. She falls asleep on his lounge chair. He shakes her awake and makes her leave. She returns to her apartment upstairs.

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