Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story portrays a contemporary woman’s consciousness surveying the ruins of the myth of romantic love. It is an ironic rumination on the emptiness of the cliché of losing one’s heart in love. At the center of the story is the drama of a psychic crisis and its resolution, staged in the chamber of a middle-aged woman’s mind. She metaphorically moves into the room of her own being and then into the underground world of her own unconscious. The tale is both the story of a woman’s crackup, her intense experience of her divided self, and the story of her development and new wholeness. The narrator’s cool detachment has long covered her submerged torment of disappointment and failure to connect in love. Captive to the myth of losing her heart in love, desiring another to claim responsibility for her and absolve her of her pain, Doris Lessing’s contemporary woman explores her own disillusionment and moves toward becoming a “free woman.”

The pale, thin, self-absorbed woman on the train is a projection of the narrator’s dissociated and long-denied mourning, her inner being gripped by pain. To her tormented doppelganger, her own living ghost, she gives her heart, at once symbolically freeing herself of the myth of romantic love and confronting and uniting with her own despair. No lover can redeem one from pain. Freedom is found in acknowledging and claiming the pain of love as one’s own, thus becoming whole.