Themes and Meanings
The double irony of Jean Stafford’s title—May’s love for Daniel ends, and her imagined adulterous love also disappears—hints at the deceptive nature of her story. The surface of May and Daniel’s domestic life in their country home shows only a steady decline into mutual distrust and almost total silence; though there are brief quarrels, there are no truly dramatic events. Stafford creates here a kind of gothic configuration: The female protagonist is trapped in the dark house with an enemy, while her rescuer-lover appears just outside. That the ogre is May’s once-adored husband and that the lover is only an imaginary expression of her desire for revenge and her wish to escape make for further irony, as does the presence of the derelict sleigh as a romantic symbol, but all of it is entirely without humor.
Stafford’s title suggests that some of the story’s meanings cohere around notions of the pastoral, specifically as a place of simplicity and calm that will somehow engender the same qualities in those who venture there. Early in the story, Dr. Tellenbach makes clear his belief that life in Boston will, with its “strain,” “pandemonium,” “excitements,” and “intrigues,” hinder Daniel’s recovery, and that the purity and solitude of country life will further it. Behind his belief lies the assumption that self-absorption and “little talk” are beneficial, and that complexity of any sort is to be avoided. The narrative demonstrates the fallacies of these positions, hinting that the condition of married love is a social one and needs the stimulation of a society outside.
On the other hand, the presence of individuals outside but very close to a marriage creates the threat of triangles, and there are several in this story. The most destructive third person is Dr. Tellenbach: He speaks to May in a “courtly” way but is “authoritative” and treats her like a child; his mention of Daniel’s mistress-disease furthers the triangle theme. May herself is bothered by what she perceives to be a greater intimacy between the doctor and her husband than she enjoys herself. Daniel, for his part, creates but does not name the imaginary-lover motif, and by rejecting May verbally and presumably sexually as well he sets in motion a strange sort of gestation in her: she “felt a certain stirring of life in her solitude,” and “nursed” her...
(The entire section is 596 words.)