Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959
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 watches a mysterious girl on the ward who does not seem to be suffering from an illness. She feels worse than she expected to feel and worries over whether she will be allowed to stay another week, although she has not paid for it. However, she is so terrified of being refused that she postpones asking the matron.
One day in the washroom, Inez sees the mysterious girl, Mrs. Murphy, leaning over the sink, apparently unwell. The girl opens her sponge bag, but several nurses rush in to rescue her from what is an assumed suicide attempt. Mrs. Murphy breaks into sobs and begs to be left alone, while Inez creeps back to bed. When the others learn of the suicide attempt, Pat and the respectable English woman across the ward discuss Mrs. Murphy in a contemptuous way, passing her off as “neurasthenic and neurotic.” They believe that because she has a “perfectly good husband and kiddies,” she has no reason to be unhappy. Inez tries to protest, but Pat responds with the admonition to “stop always trying to be different from everybody else.” Inez sinks back into her own misery.
When Mrs. Murphy comes into the ward with one of the nurses to help make the beds, Pat speaks to her cruelly. Inez attempts to defend the unhappy girl but succeeds only in attracting verbal abuse to herself. The scene is interrupted by the entrance of the doctor and nurse on their rounds. Inez starts to ask them if she can stay another week, but she realizes that no one is listening to her.
Finally, the day arrives when the nurse tells Inez that she must leave after lunch. Desperate now, Inez asks the nurse if she can stay a bit longer, although it is apparent that she has no money to pay for another week. The nurse informs her that she has waited too long to ask; all the beds are filled, and Inez must go home to finish recuperating. Inez is terribly upset and imagines that she will attempt suicide like Mrs. Murphy.
After the midday meal, Inez reflects on the fact that she has no place to go. She puts on her clothes in the washroom and leans against the wall, crying and thinking of Mrs. Murphy. Eventually she returns to the ward, intending to lie on her bed until they throw her out.
Her misery is suddenly interrupted by a request from Madame Tavernier to come to her bed. She compliments Inez on her dress, tells her not to mind the others, and slips her some money in a linen handkerchief. Inez stops crying but feels vaguely degraded because she does not trust women and has never accepted money from one before. The two women have tea together, and when the old lady asks for a kiss before she departs, Inez kisses her and thanks her warmly.
In the final scene, Inez drives to the station in a taxi but wishes that she were back in bed in the ward with the sheets over her head. The story ends on a bitter note, as Inez reflects that “you can’t die and come to life again for a few hundred francs. . . . It takes more, perhaps, than anyone is ever willing to give.”
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