Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

According to March’s biographer, Roy S. Simmonds, the genesis of “The Little Wife” was a simple observation that March made one day in a hotel lobby. He saw another guest open a telegram he had just been given. The man’s facial expression changed; then he tore up the telegram, threw it away, and, seemingly unconcerned, returned to his conversation. Although March would never know the real story of the stranger and the actual content of the telegram, he developed the incident into a short story illustrating one of the author’s primary themes: that for one reason or another, human beings choose to live in a world of appearances rather than in the more difficult world of realities.

At the end of the story, Joe tells Mrs. Thompkins that he did not open the second telegram because if he did not know the truth, he could keep Bessie alive, at least for a few more hours. However, though he does not realize it, Joe’s choice is also motivated by a need for self-preservation. He had no warning that Bessie might die. The shock was a terrible one. Instinctively, Joe senses that only by retreating for a time from the full realization of his loss can he prepare himself to face it. When he receives the second telegram, Joe is not ready to read the words he knows it contains. He wants to run away. Because he cannot jump off the train and run into the woods, as he briefly considers doing, and because he cannot face the reactions of the other passengers if they...

(The entire section is 547 words.)