(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story is divided into five parts, all told from the point of view of Inez Best, who lies in a clinic in pain, awaiting an operation. The cold, institutional nature of the clinic is established on the first page in an exchange with the matron, who criticizes Inez for bringing her makeup with her. Inez is weak and bewildered, a sympathetic figure.

Madame Tavernier, an old woman, strikes up a conversation from the next bed. She tells Inez about her two husbands, now deceased, and shows herself to be a woman of feeling and sentiment, although Inez is somewhat skeptical of her glowing description of the good husband. Inez and Madame Tavernier watch two English matrons chatting across the ward, both of whom appear “aggressively respectable.” Inez perceives one of these women, who stares at her sharply, as one who has set the machine in motion.

The next day, Inez watches the nurses on their morning rounds and sees their smooth, accustomed routine as part of the machine. She has a fantasy that, because she is “outside the machine,” they might pick her up and toss her on a rubbish heap to rot. Inez falls into a conversation with Pat, a pretty, saucy English dancer on the bed on the other side, who tells spicy stories of her life as a chorus girl. Inez observes that even Pat has her place in the machine, which increases her own sense of isolation.

When a clergyman comes to the ward to give a sermon, Inez looks forward to hearing a male voice and longs for a bit of comfort or a spark of humor, but the sermon turns out to be a recitation of platitudes. His trite morality leaves her in even greater despair.

Under the influence of a morphine injection preparatory to her operation, Inez has the sense of floating away. She looks down to see herself being led across the floor with streaming tears, for which the nurse reprimands her. When she awakens three days later in bed, she looks in her hand mirror and is horrified by her appearance, which she considers her “principal asset.” She tries to amend this by putting on makeup, but after she has applied it Pat tells her that she looks even worse.

Inez grows accustomed to the hospital routine while convalescing from her operation and finds it almost soothing. Although she suffers vague anxieties about the future, she tries to push these away and...

(The entire section is 959 words.)