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Marriage a la Mode Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

William is a hard-working, affluent solicitor who spends his weeks in London and his weekends in the countryside where his wife, Isabel, and their sons, Paddy and Johnny, live permanently. About to leave for his weekend at home, William frets because he has neglected to buy presents for the children. For several weeks in a row, he has given them candy that he bought just before his trains pulled out, but they prefer other gifts. This time, he decides to take his boys fruit—a melon and a pineapple—assuming that Isabel’s perpetual houseguests will not invade the children’s bedrooms to eat the fruit, as they have done with most of the candy in past weeks.

As his train speeds toward his destination, William fantasizes about Isabel’s meeting him at the station. Consistent with his fantasy, Isabel is waiting for him, apart from the crowd. She has engaged a taxi to take him and her four houseguests—Moira Morrison and three young poets—home. William has grown to expect aesthetic, freeloading houseguests during his weekends at home.

William and Isabel formerly lived in the city, until Isabel felt stifled by that life. William doted on her, so he agreed to her moving to the country with their sons, whom he would be able to see only on weekends. In those days, he considered Isabel enticingly fresh, associating her with his childhood habit of rushing into the garden after a rainstorm to shake the rose bushes so that he might be drenched in the freshness of the newly fallen rainwater.

After William gets off the train, Isabel leads him to the taxi in which Bill Hunt and Dennis Green are already ensconced, as is Moira, wearing a hat that resembles a large strawberry. It is Moira who originally “rescued” Isabel from her city life, took her to Paris, and introduced her to young poets. She refers to Isabel as “Titania,” the mythological queen of the fairies.

Isabel tells William where to sit in the taxi, as though he were a child. At that moment, Bobby Kane emerges from the sweets shop with his arms full of packets. The shopkeeper is close behind reminding Bobby that he has not paid for the items. When Bobby says he forgot, Isabel pays the shopkeeper and Bobby is again ecstatic.

The weekend proceeds with William feeling isolated from Isabel and her guests. His children are not there, having been taken somewhere by their nanny. At every turn, Isabel’s guests are condescending to William, who is made to feel like a stranger in his own home. He has no time alone with Isabel until just before he prepares to return to London.

On the train, William decides to write to Isabel. Before the day ends, he has written and mailed a long letter telling her that he does not wish to be a drag on her happiness, suggesting that they should end their marriage. When Isabel receives the letter, she reads it to her guests, who are still there. It takes her a while to realize that William is talking about divorce. Once she understands what William has in mind, she sits on the side of her bed saying, “How vile, odious, abominable, vulgar.” She knows that she should reply to William immediately. She also realizes that she is shallow and vain.

As she contemplates writing to William, her guests call her to go swimming. After a moment’s indecision, she joins them, vowing to write to William later.

Summary

(Short Stories for Students)

The story opens with William on his way to the train station in London. He is on his way to see his wife and children, who live outside the city. William remembers that he has not brought a gift for his children, and this realization causes him to reflect on the changes that his life has undergone recently as his wife Isabel has come to embrace more modern attitudes and friends. William purchases a melon and a pineapple for his sons and boards the train. Though he tries to concentrate on papers he brought from the office, William cannot stop his thoughts from drifting to Isabel and the way things used to be between them. While William thought they were happy...

(The entire section is 1,179 words.)