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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

Squalor and Confinement

One of the key themes in this play is squalor and ugliness, which is conveyed by the setting: a typically dingy and disreputable boardinghouse in the city of London. A sense of unpleasant claustrophobia is produced by the small spaces in which the play’s events unfold, the narrow confines of the basement and the poet’s room. A sense of release is thus experienced by an audience when, at the play’s conclusion, the poet steps out into the night and the eternal spaces of the world beyond.

Spiritual versus Earthly Love

The protagonist in this play feels a spiritual attraction for the unnamed girl in the room adjacent to his own. The aesthetic purity of this love is sustained by the fact that he never physically sees or touches her. The woman who in fact occupies that room is shown to be unremarkable in terms of her physical appearance and intellect. Similarly, the protagonist rejects Mrs. Lusty’s proposal that they engage in a sexual encounter, seemingly because of his longing for a form of love which is not of the flesh, but of the soul.

Pity and Poverty

The poverty of Mrs. Lusty, both in a material and in an emotional sense, is very much emphasized by White. An audience is meant to respond to her with a mix of empathy and disgust, a fusion of emotions which equals pity. Her physical poverty is conveyed by her plans to produce a ham for the funeral of her husband. The fact that she knows of no greater luxury than ham informs an audience that her poverty has lasted her whole life, that her worldview is limited and constricted by years spent in the metaphorical basement of society. Her emotional poverty is indicated by her offer of a sexual encounter, which she makes to the poet immediately after her husband’s demise. On one level this horrifies an audience with its immorality, yet on another it speaks to Lusty’s need for companionship and emotional support, a need which seems all the more pressing in the context of the treatment she receives from her demonic relatives.

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