Happiness Themes
by Mary Lavin

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The theme of the story is happiness. However, the concept of “happiness” as seen by Vera is subject to debate, challenge, and final qualification in the story. Vera announces her happiness very early in the story and defends it against all onslaughts until the ending. The challenge to define happiness by her daughters, especially Bea, does seem to provide a different perspective; they see happiness more realistically than Vera’s desperate struggle. In one scene, they see her swimming and are afraid she has gone too far to return to shore and may die. They notice that their mother’s happiness is something that is “dearly bought.” Happiness is, for Vera, a continual struggle rather than a state of being.

Above all, Vera’s happiness is rooted in this world. The daughters describe Father Hugh as being close to Vera to make sure of her salvation in the next world. He is less concerned with happiness in this world. She demands that the flowers not be given to the church because they would only end up on the altar; she claims that God made the flowers for people in this world rather than for himself or religious purposes. She seems to feel that she is a good Catholic, but her emphasis on this world is not traditionally Christian. In another episode, she brings daffodils to her dying husband but is rebuked by a nun at the hospital who tells her she should be praying for her husband rather than bringing him flowers. Vera rejects this point of view throughout the story. She does not think of the other world as a possibility for her or a compensation for suffering, as Father Hugh does. She is so oriented in this world that the Christian heaven is not a possibility she can make part of her thinking and that conventional hope is never mentioned by her. However, at the end of the story, Bea tells her that she is done with this world and seems to feel that it is “joyous” news. The description of Vera sinking into her pillow so deeply that it “would have dented stone” does not seem to be a “joyous” acceptance of another world but a regret at losing this one and the end of the struggle to maintain happiness in it.

The meaning of the story is revealed in the debate concerning the nature of happiness and Vera’s special claim to being happy. There is little change in the main character until the conclusion of the story, but her claim to happiness is never a settled state but one that is in question until the end.