Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story challenges the reader with a question: How much honesty can human relationships bear? Beginning with the rather clichéd situation of the English schoolboy in revolt against the restraints of middle-class codes of behavior, the story quickly deepens to explore what may be revealed in a situation of total honesty. What the boy sees as hypocrisy and dishonesty are “appearances” that ought to be dropped while they are in the no-man’s-land of the train, but the anarchy of individual impulse that replaces the accepted rules is so frightening to others that it is labeled “lunatic” and “criminal.” More important, perhaps, the fragile relationship that has existed between him and Miss Fanshawe cannot sustain total self-revelation; Carruthers fails to “understand” Miss Fanshawe and wishes for the train journey to end as usual so that he can escape from her confession.

In an ironic twist, the title takes on another meaning: These characters are striking home to the core of each other, and when they get there, they seem to discover that there is a limit to the degree of confession and aggression that other people can tolerate. When everything about another person, all the dirty linen, is revealed in public, the story seems to ask, what then? Which is preferable, the later phase, in which everything that Miss Fanshawe has felt ashamed to express is put into words, or the earlier phase, when Miss Fanshawe and the waiter practiced the...

(The entire section is 515 words.)