Although Conrad Aiken’s title might suggest that “Impulse” concerns a whimsical, unpremeditated action, the story actually examines an ostensibly “impulsive” action and finds, instead, that the “impulse” is really the logical culmination of a series of actions in the life of Michael Lowes, the protagonist. If fact, the story is a fictionalized psychological study of a paranoid “loser,” whose attempts to escape from reality are self-destructive acts that lead to his arrest and conviction for theft and to an impending divorce from his wife.
Just as he is left alone in his cell at the end of the story, Michael is significantly alone when the story begins, and because he is shaving, he is also characteristically narcissistic. As he shaves, his thoughts reveal a gamut of psychological problems: Ready “to do a new jump,” he projects his “restless” feelings on his wife, Dora; “fate is always against you”; his “friends” are inferior, “cheap fellows, really”; and he twice mentions his need for “escape.” Michael uses his “friends” to enhance his own self-image, while he maintains a distance from them (he denies that he “likes” them), and he also seems threatened by Dora and the family relationships and responsibilities that the marriage represents. Those responsibilities are represented by the “bills,” which he procrastinates paying and which are the result of the “bad luck” that hounds him.
To gain needed respite from his responsibilities, he schemes to meet Smith, Bryant, and Hurwitz for dinner, drinks, and an evening of bridge and conversation. During an intermission from bridge, the four men begin to discuss the nature of impulses and the civilizing social forces, particularly the fear of the law, that prevent people from yielding to those sudden, irrational, and subconscious desires. Michael feels “relief” when he learns that he has not been alone in having “both these impulses,” theft and sex, and although his friends turn to other topics of conversation, he recalls the “thrills” he experienced earlier in his life when he stole a conch shell.
When the game ends, Michael leaves for the subway station but stops at the nearby drugstore to get some hot chocolate. Once in the store, he realizes that his real motive for stopping at the drugstore was “to steal something,” “to put the impulse to the test.” After viewing the “wares,” he steals a safety-razor set, but despite his dexterity he is apprehended by the store detective and taken to a back room, where he unsuccessfully attempts to explain the theft as a “joke,” the result of a “bet.” He is equally unsuccessful at the police station, where a sergeant calls Hurwitz and Bryant to check on his story about the bet; both deny the existence of the bet, and Hurwitz adds that Michael is “hard up.”
Dora adds to Michael’s predicament because, although she is willing to get him a lawyer and to contact Hurwitz, Bryant, and Smith, her “cold, detached, deliberate behavior” indicates that she does not believe in his innocence. Moreover, she is unwilling to use her own savings in his defense. When his lawyer reports that his friends are unwilling to be involved, his fate is sealed, and he receives a three-month sentence. After his first week in prison, he receives his first post-trial communication from Dora: It is a note informing him that she is instituting divorce proceedings and requesting that he not contest the divorce. Realizing that opposing the divorce would be futile, he resolves that on his release he will “go west . . . get rich, clear his name somehow,” but he does not know how to accomplish his immature, unrealistic goals and retreats into his memories of his childhood in Chicago. At the end of the story, he concludes that his “whole life . . . had all come foolishly to an end.”