Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781
Katherine Anne Porter’s simple plot structure belies an insightful rendering of an embittered and ambivalent relationship between a husband and wife who have recently moved to the country from their apartment in town. Despite the generic pronominal references and an ambiguous locale (southern regionalism more in spirit than in fact), the characters are more fully realized than the reader may at first suppose—indeed, each character will flesh out his or her personality by degrees after the inward turning of the first paragraph.
Returning from a four-mile walk through heat and dust, the husband is first greeted by his wife with affection; they exchange playful remarks about their unfamiliar circumstances: She resembles “a born country woman”; he seems like “a rural character in a play.” Swiftly, the narrator plunges inside to reveal the essence of what each says to the other. This narrational viewpoint (narrated monologue) involves, at times, not only a rapid switch between characters but also a greater degree of editorializing by the narrator as the tempo of their argument increases.
At first, the wife is mildly disappointed that he has forgotten her coffee; then she spies the broken eggs in the sack—caused by a twenty-four-yard coil of rope; the eggs will have to be used right away, and her plans for dinner are spoiled. Soon, they are arguing with a surprising vehemence, considering the trivial cause. Her passion for order is, in his view, “an insane habit of changing things around”; she, however, “had borne all the clutter she meant to bear in the flat in the town.” For the most part, her emotional outbursts are inflected with her own idiom, thinly disguised by the narrator’s mediation, but it becomes evident that the pressure of the past is on the point of overwhelming her. Deeper plunges by the narrator inside his character reveal how wide is the discrepancy between what he thinks is wrong with her and what her own near-the-surface reflections reveal.
The rope, which keeps getting underfoot in a figurative sense, lends a bit of grotesque comedy, causing the reader to ponder its obvious symbolic aspects. Although the taunts fly between them, it is clear that they cannot articulate the most deeply rooted sources of their discontent. Aside from the poverty and drudgery of their marriage, she chafes at the housework, even though “getting the devilish house ready for him” pleases her. They are childless, but he cruelly taunts her infertility, wishing she had “something weaker than she was to heckle and tyrannize over.” She is also tortured by jealousy and the likelihood that he may have been unfaithful during his stay in town the summer before; he cavalierly dismisses her fear; “It may have looked funny but he had simply got hooked in, and what could he do?”
In contrast to her bitterness, he seems smugly indifferent to probing his own responsibility, exploding in wonderment and fury: “What was the matter, for God’s sake?” He knows that it cannot be “only a piece of rope that was causing all the racket,” but he deflects her barbs with those of his own by threatening to leave her “with a half-empty house on her hands.” Less fragile than she, he assumes a kind of mordant pose about it all: “Things broke so suddenly you didn’t know where you were.”
He tries to placate her by returning to the village for the coffee, as if that were the source of contention, but she complains that he is deserting her: “Sometimes it seemed to her he had second sight about the precisely perfect moment to leave her ditched.” Then she collapses into a fit of hysterical laughter, from which he has to revive her by a violent shaking, and she sends him and his rope down the road with a curse. Alone with his thoughts, he consoles himself with more philosophy: “Things accumulated, things were mountainous, you couldn’t move them or sort them or get rid of them.”
On his return—again with the rope, which he had hidden and retrieved—he sees his wife waiting; the air is cool and carries the smell of broiling steak; she is attractive, beckoning—and he runs to her. Together, embracing, they return to the house; he playfully coos baby talk to her, and he pats her stomach—a gesture that elicits “wary smiles” from them both. She admires an out-of-season whippoorwill calling its mate (she thinks), and the narrator concludes on an ironically detached note, giving the reader a last glimpse of the husband’s mind: Oblivious to the day’s strife, he tells himself that he understands her: “Sure, he knew how she was.”