"A Journey" Summary

A Journey” is a short story by Edith Wharton about an unhappy woman traveling by train with her gravely ill husband.

  • The woman had accompanied her husband to Colorado for his health, but he has not improved, and the two are now returning home to New York City.
  • After finding her husband dead in their sleeping car, the woman tells no one in order to avoid being put off the train with the man’s body at the next stop.
  • Other passengers begin offering advice to the woman, who becomes increasingly confused and collapses just before the train reaches New York.

Summary

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Last Updated on December 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129

The eponymous journey in Edith Wharton's story is a trip by rail from Colorado to New York. A woman and her husband are traveling together, and the man is seriously ill. The couple had gone to Colorado for the man's health, for the doctors had told them that he needed a winter in a dry climate in order to be cured. But the husband is still sick and appears to be getting worse; he is unable to leave his sleeping berth and has to be given medicine regularly. Six weeks in the Colorado air were supposed to have cured him, but the woman knows that the reason the doctors said that they can return to New York is that there is no hope for the man: his death is imminent.

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The woman thinks back on the brief time she has been married. At first, she and her husband felt connected, both spiritually and physically. Her life as a schoolteacher had been dull and uninteresting, but marriage had at first enabled her to be fulfilled, as she and her husband seemed to energize each other. They were happy together. With his illness, this has changed. He has become irritable and reproachful. She is unprepared for having to care for a sick person and she feels that her own life, her development as a person, has been stifled and cut short. Though pity for her husband overwhelms her, she also experiences a strong sense of resentment, despite her still loving him.

The stay in Colorado has exacerbated the woman's depression, and she longs to be back in New York City with family and friends. In Colorado she has felt alienated and cut off from life, and no one there cared about her. Now, the train journey of several days has started out seemingly well, with her husband reviving slightly during the first day and enjoying the passing scenery and the activity within the car. On the second day, however, his condition starts to worsen. One of the other passengers is a freckled child who pays unwanted attention to the man, to the point where the woman has to tell the child's mother that her husband is too ill to be disturbed this way. The trip drags on, with only brief words exchanged between wife and husband. After the third day is over, she assures him that they will be home in twenty-four hours, and she pictures to herself the scene that awaits them in New York when they'll be greeted at the station. Hopefully, she muses, no one will make superficial and insincere comments to him that he is looking well, when in fact he is dying.

Shortly after putting her husband to bed, she thinks she hears him call her, but it is only the sound of a man snoring somewhere in the car. She observes the regular movement of the curtains of her husband's berth and, for the moment, reassures herself that nothing has happened to him. The woman goes to sleep, then wakes up at dawn and gets dressed. When she parts the curtains of her husband’s berth and goes in, she finds that he is dead.

The woman is terrified that if her husband’s death is discovered, she will be forced off the train with her husband's body at the next station. She recalls a train ride earlier in her life when she saw this happen to a couple whose child had died on the train. The bewildered and frightened expression of the couple, abandoned at a random station with their child's body, was terrifying to see. Now her effort becomes one of concealing her husband's death. She fastens the curtains of his berth with a pin. All through the car people are waking up, dressing, and going to breakfast. The porter tells her that he has her husband's glass of milk ready for him, and when he asks if he can make up the man's berth, she puts him off, saying her husband must have his milk first. When the milk is brought and the porter asks if he should give it to the man, she abruptly tells him her husband is still asleep and that she will give him the milk.

When she unpins the curtain and goes into her husband's berth, she sees the ghastly look of his open eyes and closes his eyelids. She is uncertain of what to do with the milk and finally drinks it herself. When she returns to her seat and the porter again questions her about making up the berth, she insists that her husband not be disturbed because of the severity of his illness and that he has been told to lie down as much as possible. People in the car begin expressing sympathy and giving advice, with one of them asking if she can take a look at the sick man. This passenger observes that the woman doesn't seem used to dealing with sick people and asks questions about the man's medicine, even suggesting that the man be given it more frequently than has been the case. Another passenger, apparently a Christian Science clergyman, begins discoursing to her on the theme of death as a mere delusion and offers a pamphlet for her to give her husband to read. He claims that if one submits oneself to “the action of the divine force . . . disease and dissolution will cease to exist for you.”

The woman becomes increasingly detached from the other passengers and her general surroundings. Their voices become indistinct; the porter says something to her she doesn't understand. She realizes that when they finally reach New York, she must pretend that she didn't know her husband was dead. She will have to scream when his body is discovered, she thinks, but wonders if she will be able to do so. Yet all the while, her own thoughts become increasingly confused, and she thinks she sees her husband's face directly before her, imagining she can feel his smooth, dead skin. She cries out involuntarily, prompting the woman in the seat in front to turn around and stare. After taking out some biscuits and eating them, she also finds a flask of her husband's brandy in her bag, takes a sip, and falls asleep.

In sleep she dreams of herself lying dead next to her husband. The darkness of death surrounds her, and she awakens in terror. They are approaching New York, and the passengers are preparing to detrain. The train goes through the darkness of the Harlem tunnel, and she hears the porter saying that they had better wake her husband up now. The story closes as she stretches out her arms, then collapses, falling forward and striking her head “against the dead man's berth.”

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