Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435
Taylor’s major theme in this early story is the disintegration of the family and the collapse of the values associated with the genteel South. Allied with that is an investigation, showing Freudian preoccupations, of the effects of this disintegration on a lone woman’s psyche (“A Spinster’s Tale,” written about the same time, focuses for the same purpose on a woman who unlike Josie was reared in the upper-middle class). The results suggest that the social breakdown has revealed sadistic and masochistic elements that appear as twisted versions of the male aggressiveness and female passivity associated with the old, genteel chivalric love tradition.
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George, who appears often in the story wearing white, rides horses on his country estate, drinks expensive whiskey in his mint juleps, and is impetuous with his inferiors and sentimental with his children, represents a soulless version of the southern gentleman. His behavior toward his mistress is summarized as follows: “He either laughed at her or cursed her or, of course, at night would pet her. He hadn’t hit her.” The organized infidelities of his friends are further evidence of social breakdown; his allowing those friends to share his mistress, and his sons to see her, contrasts with his violent defense of those sons from her supposed advances and adds a final grotesque touch to the treatment of “social standards” in the story.
Of at least equal importance, however, is the related theme of the consequences of social and familial disintegration on women. Josie is out of her usual social element here—thus her loneliness and eagerness to please a man she barely knows. Taylor, however, avoids the pitfall of sentimentality by characterizing her as an adventurer who thinks she can rise in the world: She will, it seems, suffer anything for George. Her essentially conservative assumption about the need for a wife in this “family” is ironic, and does not serve her well. George feels no such need. Events make it clear that Josie, to promote her own interests, is willing to become a drunk, to prostitute herself, to commit adultery with strangers, and to seek to take advantage of what she suspects to be the worst impulses of George’s adolescent son. She matches and perhaps exceeds George’s desire to manipulate people. For both George and Josie, freedom is a concept unconnected with responsibility, and this license makes their final confrontation inevitable. It is significant that after her constant worry about respectability, she should be named “fancy woman” by George’s younger boy, whose precocious insight is an indictment of all the adults in the story.