Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
Catherine is a serene thirty-two-year-old woman who has a distant relationship with her mother, husband, and four-year-old son. She is "modern'' and pretty, slightly plump, with short hair tinted reddish brown, and a slight squint. With her husband, Catherine lives tranquilly if not happily, refusing to break the peace with the kind of talk that could lead to intimacy. With her mother, she maintains a safe distance, even though she longs, in a way, to ask her intimate questions such as whether she was happy with her father. To Catherine,'"mother and daughter' means 'life and repugnance.'’’ She is filled with relief after her mother leaves, but the lingering sense of a connection drives her to build the same neurotic and imprisoning relationship with her tiny son.
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‘‘Thin and highly strung,’’ the child, whose name is not given, speaks ‘‘as if verbs were unknown to him’’ and ‘‘observe[s] things coldly, unable to connect them among themselves.’’ His mind is always "somewhere else.'' When his mother laughs in a wheezing way at his calling her "Mummy,’’ it prompts him to pronounce his mother "ugly." He has no attachment to his family, but Catherine is about to forge one.
Severina, Catherine's mother, adopts a tone of "challenge and accusation'' with Tony that is really directed at her daughter. She pronounces their son ‘‘too thin’’ and waits until the day of her departure to apologize, in an offhand and general way, for her harsh treatment of her son-in-law. Severina is an old woman, wrinkled, with dentures, but with the silly vanity of a hat that falls over her eyes when the train lurches forward. The hat, ‘‘bought from the same milliner patronized by her daughter,’’ was a futile and misguided attempt at intimacy as well as a form of advertisement of her stylishness to the other train passengers. The unsaid words, ‘‘I am your mother,’’ haunt her parting with Catherine. Severina, looking like a madonna, is most vulnerable when the train moves off and it is too late for her to repair the damage of her mothering of Catherine.
‘‘A slightly built man with a dark complexion,’’ Catherine's husband has a slight cold, which he uses to mask his discomfort around his mother-in-law. His having a cold is a metaphor for all of the family relations: sickness, self-absorption, and fragility. He is an engineer who has provided well for his family and who on typical Saturdays "pursued his private occupation’’ of reading. Tony realizes that when Catherine takes their son for a walk, she is beginning to build that tight bond between mother and child that will imprison the young boy just as he was imprisoned by his own mother and Catherine by her mother, yet Tony can do no more than think to himself, ‘‘Catherine, this child is still innocent.’’ He cannot move himself to follow them or to stop her, but stands looking wistfully out the window at them walking away from him. He takes refuge in the thought of going to the cinema with his family after dinner, a way of passing the evening safely and quickly, with no threat of intimacy.