Summary

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Last Updated on October 2, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711

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The play begins with a prologue during which the poet confides to an audience by means of soliloquy that he has become aware of being alive and thus that he must participate in the play. After this metaphorical awakening, the poet is shown to wake up physically, lying on a bed in a dingy room. His apathy toward life is conveyed in his posture, his staring blankly at the ceiling, and his being initially irresponsive when Mrs. Lusty invites him downstairs for dinner. During their discussion in the protagonist’s bedroom, Mrs. Lusty portrays her enthusiasm for life, her desire to consume all she can, a desire that is contrasted with the young man’s apathy. The protagonist asks her about the occupant of the next room, and Mrs. Lusty says that she is a young woman who seems fragile and detached, due to her choosing to go to sleep early every night with an aspirin. Here is the first sign of a link between the protagonist and the young woman.

The two descend into the basement, where the atmosphere is both melancholy, as at a funeral, and strained, as in an unhappy marital home. While he is physically still and almost crippled by his fatness, Will Lusty exercises a fascination with the protagonist that his wife cannot. While she speaks of her own needs and desires often, Will is more philosophical, conveying in his words certain truths which resonate with the poet. For instance, Will reiterates what the protagonist had established in the prologue concerning time and place, namely that such concepts are not important, that one must live wherever and whenever they exist. While Mrs. Lusty’s fatness indicates her having consumed all she can, her husband’s fatness indicates stability, perhaps even a form of strength.

As he leaves the basement, the poet reveals his troubles to the audience: namely, he feels unfulfilled and unrecognized by the world for his qualities, both as an artist and as a person. He has a discussion with someone living in the next room, though he cannot see them, because this conversation takes place through a wall. There is a strange symmetry between these two characters, as shown by their mirroring each other’s movements. Will desperately wants to meet this stranger in person, to break through the wall and experience the completeness that he expects they will provide him with, but he is skeptical as to whether this is possible. The invisible person suggests that there is the possibility in life to discover more about one’s nature, using the Lustys and their basement as a metaphor for something within the protagonist that he is yet to discover.

The protagonist descends to the basement to find that Will is dead. He and Mrs. Lusty find it difficult moving the large dead man onto a bed, a moment which perhaps constitutes the highest point of macabre comedy in the play.

The protagonist then fetches Will’s relatives to attend the funeral. On the way, he discovers a fetus in a trashcan and believes it to be Jack, the Lustys’ dead son. The funeral is very sparsely attended, but more of Will’s relatives come to the wake. The protagonist, who had since the moment he set foot outside the house longed to return to his state of detached revelry, goes up to his room, but the person in the next room insists he go back down to the basement—metaphorically, that he continue his self-discovery. Mrs. Lusty is glad to see him, since with him gone she had needed to endure the cruel jabs of Will’s relatives, who had even been accusing her of murdering her husband.

Once the relatives are gone, Mrs. Lusty tries to seduce the protagonist, but he reacts violently and flees the basement. Up in his room, he becomes frustrated that the unseen stranger continues to insist he converse with those in the basement, and he enters their room, only to find it empty. He then sees the actual occupant of the room entering the house and is disappointed by her not being what he had imagined. He has a reconciliation with Mrs. Lusty before leaving the basement and the house and wandering off into the city.

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Themes