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...
(The entire section is 781 words.)