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Old Light Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story is told by the unnamed grandson of a famous portrait painter many years after its events take place.

An unnamed woman is a young art student who earns extra money working in an art studio where tourists pay small fees to have their portraits drawn in charcoal, sepia pencil, or full pastels. Young Corporal John Palmer, who admires her craftsmanship, often hangs around the studio to talk to her and have her do his portrait as an excuse for monopolizing her time. By the time that their affair ends, she will have drawn 174 portraits of him. These character studies will have a decisive effect on her future career as an artist. In them she discovers the magic in herself: her ability to find in a charcoal line a man’s humor—his wit, compassion, strength, courage, and fear.

A visionary, Palmer regards the world war as only a minor setback to his career. He has grandiose plans for the future. Although just twenty-five years old, he already has a reputation as one of the best boat builders in his home state of Rhode Island. As he shares his vision of a glowing future with the young artist, she feels herself gradually being incorporated into his lifetime plans.

They begin going out together, walking on the beach, sailing in small boats, sometimes staying up all night. Their relationship seems entirely platonic. The woman does not realize that she has fallen in love until after Palmer goes overseas. His exuberance, confidence, and energy radiate through her, inspiring her to continue with her art despite her misgivings about her talent and choice of vocation.

After receiving a bundle of letters that Palmer has sent to her Atlantic City studio, the woman returns to Atlantic City to live in the hope that he will return there and find her. She does not learn until after the European war has ended, however, that Palmer has died in battle.

Eventually she marries another man—the narrator’s grandfather—and leads an exceptionally active life, acquiring international fame as a portrait painter. At the end of her own narrative—which her grandchildren have heard numerous times—she confesses that she has never forgotten Palmer but has somehow managed to reconcile her love for him with her love for her husband. The reader is left with the impression that Palmer was a guiding light in her life, who inspired her to achieve greatness.