Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ma’Dear’s solitude permeates the story. Although the solitude is unwanted, Ma’Dear has chosen it for the thirty-two years following the death of her husband, Jessie. Her efforts to find a man exactly like her deceased husband were doomed from the outset, and the men with whom she had engaged in relationships were patently unsuitable. Her friends—with the possible exception of Gunther, whose relationship to her is unexplained—are those of her childhood. They live in nursing homes and are not free to visit her. Although she mentions saving money for her church’s cross-country bus trip, there is no indication that she is involved with members of her church. She rents rooms to three people who are at home so seldom that Ma’Dear can convince the caseworker that she lives alone.

Even in the midst of other people, Ma’Dear remains wrapped in her cocoon of solitude. She participates in confidential conversations by eavesdropping. Her knowledge of out-of-town visitors is gleaned from observing license plates. She goes to matinees if the lines are not slowed by too many senior citizens. She learns about the habits of young people from conversations she overhears at the beauty shop.

Paradoxically, her most intimate relationship appears to be with the unnamed caseworker whom Ma’Dear believes is interested in learning about the roomers in order to reduce her Social Security income. Ma’Dear expends a lot of thought and energy on the caseworker—deceiving her, imagining her affluence, and assuming that the caseworker resents Ma’Dear’s low mortgage.

As the story ends, Ma’Dear seems to be beginning to emerge from the unwanted solitude to which she attributes her melancholia. At the same time, she is becoming comfortable with some aspects of the solitude, deciding to treat herself to a bubble bath, a cup of hot tea, and a manicure, despite the impending visit of the caseworker, the nameless character with whom Ma’Dear is becoming less preoccupied.