Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central, overlapping themes of “The Love of a Good Woman” are secrets, lies, and flesh. The basic human reality that pervades the story is that there are hidden realities about which people lie. The ultimate human secret is the flesh, which, by its very nature, is driven by physical desire and inevitably ends in death. The most predominant manifestation of this theme of the connection between flesh and death is the fact that Mr. Willens’s lust causes his death and indirectly leads to the death of Mrs. Quinn.

The basic human secret of lust and the corruption of the flesh is suggested by both Mrs. Quinn and Enid. Mrs. Quinn’s failing kidneys result in a smell coming from her that is acrid and ominous, an outer manifestation of an inner corruption. In spite of this smell of death, Mrs. Quinn is not self-conscious about her body and is without shame when Enid must bath her. Enid cannot conquer her dislike of the doomed woman, repulsed by the misshapen body she has to wash and powder. She particularly dislikes the physical manifestations of the disease—the smell and discoloration, and the pathetic ferretlike teeth. Enid sees all of this as a sign of willful corruption.

Enid is troubled by ugly dreams in which she is copulating with forbidden and unthinkable partners. “Slick with lust,” she accepts these partners, saying they will have to do until something better comes along; this matter-of-fact depravity increases her lust even more until she wakes up with disgust and humiliation. The repulsive, fleshly nature of sex and its relation to death is also suggested by Mrs. Quinn’s reaction to the attentions of Mr. Willens, grabbing at her and sucking away at her with “his dribbly old mouth.” As she helps Rupert put his body in the car, one of his legs kicks her and she thinks that even in death he is a lusty old devil. She even believes that the horrible smell that resulted from burning the bloodstained blouse she had on when she dragged Mr. Willens’s body to the car brought on her illness.

The final connection between the themes of desire and death occurs at the end of the story when Enid’s desire for Rupert is such that she is willing to risk her own life to test whether the story Mrs. Quinn told her was true.