Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The themes explored in Mary Gordon’s novels—self-sacrifice, the limitations of love, and the dangers inherent in ordinary life—are evident in “City Life.” Self-sacrifice is apparent in Beatrice’s actions and the story’s complex male-female relationships. Beatrice escapes the horror of her squalid childhood by learning from her school teachers how to better herself. She carefully plans her life, working and attending classes. As a full-time student, she lives on yogurt made from powdered milk, eats half-rotten vegetables she buys at a discount, and purchases day-old bread. She buys her clothes from the Salvation Army and lives in a tiny room near campus.

When Peter meets Beatrice, he admires the brilliant white of her shirt collar, her overall cleanliness, and the refinement of her hands. He also sees clarity, simplicity, and thrift, which appeal to his mathematical mind. When he learns that she is three years older than him, he believes her explanation that she had to work before attending college because her parents had tragically died. Beatrice also knows that Peter likes her lack of encumbrances: With Beatrice as his wife, he has no in-laws.

Beatrice’s parents’ lifestyle is contrasted with that of Peter and Beatrice. Her parents are alcoholics, and her mother spends most of her time sleeping off a hangover or drinking to get one. Quite often, Beatrice’s supper consists of the only food in the house, cheese spread mixed...

(The entire section is 427 words.)