Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092
There is a cluster of interrelated themes in this deceptively simple story, all of which may be more effectively considered as aspects of a general psychological state, by no means abnormal, than as distinct topics, each sufficient unto itself. Since they permeate the story and must permeate any serious discussion of it, some of their substantive material has already been touched on above. These themes, as applied to the central figure (protagonist is too heavy a designation for him here), are as follows: (1) living a "secret life," and what it is like to live a "secret life," i.e., opting to dwell temporarily (as conditions permit) outside present reality, and within an alternate and much more desirable world of the mind; (2) beginning a "new life," whereby the "secret life" or "dream life" may somehow become a reality on however limited a basis; (3) wanting to have the best of both worlds: the world of present reality and the considerably more desirable world of the "secret life" of the mind; (4) becoming dissatisfied with what was once so strongly desired; (5) finding the course of one's life shifting from a pattern of order to a pattern of disorder.
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In what the central figure considers his life's "most eventful week," a number of unusual things happened to him. Seven days before he was to be married, he received a telegram informing him that he had been appointed to a position in the government. His poems won a prize from a poetry society. As a result, his home city's newspapers played up the story of his successes, one paper even including his picture in the news item. His very evident celebrity status was brought home to him when he called on his fiancee (whose father was a judge) and found a houseful of people there, all of whom later that evening "seemed to be praising him." One night later in the week, he went alone to the theater and again found himself the center of attention because of all the publicity. This "altogether abnormal time" for him turned his head, and he became possessed by "[the] most absurd fancies" in which, for example, he was the focus of much more adulatory attention than ever before. Riding in his carriage through the city, he found the eyes of a hundred thousand people looking up at him, praising him. In this state of excitement and heightened awareness he wanted to dream about his fiancee, sketch out "noble poems," or formulate plans for advancing his career. None of these desirable courses of action could be followed, however. His mind, which had already been pre-empted by visions and thoughts of the tobacconist's wife, had no room for much of anything else. And so began his alternate existence.
The basis for his actually favoring the unprepossessing "other" over his seemingly far more attractive fiancee may not be clear to many readers, unless the principle "there's no accounting for taste" is applied, and even then the issue will have been bypassed. The matter is worth going into, however, and will be treated below, in the section on Characters. But the notion of the hidden or suppressed life, unobtainable in the present reality, is hardly unfamiliar, in Western society at least. Needless to say, it occurs widely in low-grade form and is by no means limited to a fantasy concerning a secret but unobtainable love.
As to the man's becoming dissatisfied with what was once so strongly desired, a situation so well expressed in the eighth line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 29—"With what I most enjoy contented least"— Anderson makes his character's position abundantly clear. Some time before his wedding, he had become affected by the sight of the wife of the man who ran the newspaper stand and cigar store. During the week prior to the wedding, "in the midst of his distraction she was the only person he knew who stood out clear and distinct in his mind." Wanting "so much to think noble thoughts, he could think only of her." As he expressed it to the narrator of the story, though his fiancee was the only woman he wanted to live with and to have as his "comrade in undertaking to improve [his] own character and [his] position in the world," just then he wanted in his arms only that other woman. Stalking her at her lodging, thinking of her, surely in bed with her husband, made him furious. Then he went home and took to his bed, "shaken with anger." Trying to read his inspirational bedside material—books of prose and verse—he was not able to hear the voices of the dead writers, and even when he tried to think of the woman he was in love with, "her figure had also become something far away, . . . with which [he] for the moment seemed to have nothing to do."
Finally, the theme of finding the course of one's life shifting from a pattern of order to a pattern of disorder pervades the entire confession of the unfaithful but self-justifying bridegroom to the narrator of the story. The very first words of the story and of his confession state that he is in love with his wife, a remark that the narrator considers superfluous because he has not raised the question in the first place. The bridegroom's reiterations of this husbandly sentiment appear quite unconvincing, not only because he doth protest too much, but also because he states clearly a number of times that the spirit or thought of that other woman is still very much with him: it goes with him, it gets inside his mind and gives him there a dramatic equivalent of genuine sexual experience. And it deludes him. For example, at the end of the story, the former bridegroom, whose wife sleeps in a separate room next to his (though her door remains open), reveals once more his confusion over which woman he really desires. He wonders why he was so silly about fearing he would give the narrator the idea he was not in love with his wife. Then he adds, revealingly, "As the matter stands I have a little stirred myself up. Tonight I shall think of the other woman." A clear measure of his discomfort in disorder is shown earlier in the story, before his invitation to the tobacconist's wife, who so occupied his thoughts as he lay abed that he could neither think of the woman he claimed to love nor sleep: "I rolled and tumbled about in the bed. It was a miserable experience."