Themes and Meanings

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The story is intricately plotted, with three climaxes and reversals, all carefully controlled by the focus on Margaret’s consciousness. The first phase centers on her discovery of betrayal and infidelity, on the contrast between her placid assumption of routine domestic duties and George’s varied outside interests. She is devastated that a twenty-year marriage should expire in an afternoon, but he blandly carries on with business as usual. Her first instinct is to fight for what is hers. This movement comes to a climax in the visit of Dorothy Chambers with her cynical views of the different ways of men and women in love and her suggestion that marriage involves both more and less than love. Margaret rejects that counsel and decides to confront Rose; the implication is that she continues to feel that marriage depends on mutual love.

The second phase involves her exchange with Rose. Here the conflict is partly older woman and experience against younger woman and the intensity of youth, partly domestic housewife against independent career woman. However, more is engaged than that. Both women speak of love as a common, identifiable experience and feeling, almost a supreme law to which both must conform. Margaret realizes that if George loves Rose—and Rose is confident that he does—in the way the women speak of love, then Margaret must give him up. Only for that supreme reason could he have hurt her so much. She resolves to concede.

The third and final phase is her conference with George. Here, once again, things turn out not as she expected. Far from confirming Rose’s account of their relationship, George denies its substance, asserting that it was no more significant than a game of golf. Margaret cannot understand this; he seems to be giving words such as “love” a totally different meaning, and this allows him to treat women as adversaries. This attitude desecrates all of them. Small wonder that she now feels life has no meaning; she has discovered that the kind of love that means so much to women is unappreciated by men. This final climax is shattering, because the only alternative it leaves is the cynical opportunism of Dorothy Chambers.


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The Generation Gap
The generation gap that so often exists between older and younger members of society is an important theme in the story. In Rose’s eyes, Margaret is a ‘‘Victorian woman,’’ meaning she is hopelessly old-fashioned and behind the times; in Margaret’s eyes, Rose is clearly a ‘‘Bohemian,’’ someone who embraces new thoughts and ideas and rebels against the old order. Because the story is told strictly from Margaret’s point of view, readers only understand her criticism of the younger generation: Rose’s talk of ‘‘self-development’’ as simply the ‘‘catchwords’’ of the ‘‘new freedom’’; Rose’s generation’s lack of understanding the compromises that make a good relationship. Readers do not internally experience Rose’s impression of Margaret’s Victorianism, but Rose’s feelings are neatly summed up in the phrase, ‘‘Oh, I wonder what you Victorian women did for a solace when you weren’t allowed even a cigarette!’’ Rose also demonstrates her generation’s liberal attitude toward love and partnerships when she declares that should she come to love another, George will give her up.

Margaret further equates Rose’s generation with a more general breakdown of society. Rose’s generation, according to Margaret, has bypassed all the traditions that make society stable. She sees this not only in Rose’s usurpation of her husband but in the very circumstances with which she surrounds herself— the neglected villa, the leaves left to rot in the yard, the run in Rose’s stocking. Margaret...

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believes that her own adherence to what is proper and moral shows her generation’s superiority. To Margaret, Rose epitomizes a younger, selfish breed of Americans, willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to meet their own needs.

Other elements of the story, however, show that the generation gap is not the primary reason for the conflict between Margaret and Rose, nor does it have to separate women of different age groups. Similarities between Margaret and Rose do exist, particularly in their mutual belief that George’s having an affair with the younger woman proves that he loves her. Dorothy Chambers also represents a character conscious of her generation’s ideals, yet open to a changing moral landscape. Dorothy seems more responsive to modern influences; not only does she smoke, but, unlike Margaret, she does not believe that an affair means the end of a marriage.

Love and Adultery
The different ways of looking at love and adultery cause the plot conflict in the story. Margaret believes that the only reason that her husband would betray her is for love, while George believes that an adulterous relationship can be embarked upon merely as ‘‘recreation.’’ He never denies his love for his wife nor does he claim to love Rose. Instead, as justification for the affair, George subtlety presents quite stereotypical reasons for his involvement with Rose, that she was young, amorously adventurous, and available. George never fathoms that his attachment could have any bearing on his affection for his wife.

To Margaret, however, George’s actions come to symbolize his lack of love for her. Only a man who holds her in such little regard, she reasons, could hurt her so much for no good reason (fun is not good enough reason, but love is). Margaret’s anguish truly revolves around the question of what is love and what it means. For Margaret it is an abstract, powerful bond between two people, but for George it more of a basic part of daily living. As Dorothy puts it, ‘‘women love with their imagination and men with their senses.’’

While the story questions what love means to different people, it does not question why people stray in their relationships. Because the story is so defined by Margaret’s vision and thoughts, and because she cannot conceive of adultery without love, the story never explores the meaning of adultery in a similar way to its treatment of love. This may also be a reflection of the morals of the period in which the story was written and published.

Sex Roles
Margaret clearly plays out the role of many women of her generation; she is the thoughtful helpmate of her husband, taking care of all household chores and problems while at the same time assisting George as needed in his professional duties. She revels in this role, never questioning the importance of her life’s duties though they are constrained by her sex, until she learns of George’s unfaithfulness. When she receives Rose’s letter, her whole world is shattered. For while Margaret was never a ‘‘partner’’ in any late-20th century sense of the word, she always believed that her role in George’s life made her irreplaceable. She also admits to her willing subordination of her own desires to his, though she does not admit to any hidden desires until her world has been turned upside down.

George makes clear to Margaret his need for her to continue this role, while asserting that he never loved Rose. In so doing, he distinctly separates the roles of ‘‘wife’’ and ‘‘mistress’’; he also demonstrates that women of that time period had more than one role to play, but that in all probability, neither of these options—helpmate or lover—could entirely fulfill a man.

George’s obtuseness to his wife’s pain and disillusionment can be attributed to a gender gap. As Dorothy succinctly puts it: ‘‘When a man and a woman talk of love they speak two different languages. They can never understand each other.’’ This truth plays out in the Fleming’s marriage. Margaret believes that all she does to help George irreparably ties him to her with bonds of love, not necessity, while George seeks out Rose simply because he enjoys her company. For George, Rose is of the moment, but this does not detract from his desire to spend his life with Margaret.