Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

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.

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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 with pimentos on crackers. However, Peter and Beatrice have an immaculate home, and their relationship with each other and their children is amicable. Also, Beatrice keeps her family well fed.

Another theme is love’s limitations. Beatrice plays the role of a dutiful marital partner to express her appreciation to Peter for providing her with a life of clean linen, bright rooms, and matched dishes. She accepts his ardor as if it were a violent and fascinating storm. She bears children and is effective in her roles as wife and mother.

Like other works by Gordon, this story exhibits the dangers in ordinary life that are rooted in self-deception and self-discovery. Even though Beatrice tries to deceive Peter regarding her origins, she is unable to escape from her past. After she is married and has children, she tries to locate her parents and is shocked to find that they have disappeared without a trace. The incident with the disgusting neighbor triggers her desire to seek her lost childhood. She feels remorse for having left home and guilt that she has a pleasant life when her parents live in poverty.

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