Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The rope is the story’s central symbol: It binds and oppresses; it lashes and it strangles. Tied together as this couple is, the reader may wonder whether the equilibrium restored to their marriage at the end is merely a temporary respite: Is their need for each other sufficient to overcome the inertia of this kind of anger and bitterness? Like the crab apple fruit itself, the marriage of this pair may well survive on the strength of these intense emotions: Hatred, for them, may be the obverse side of love’s coin. In any case, the narrator remains detached from commentary, and the reader must accept the ambiguity of the conclusion. Certainly, their marriage is a hell of their own making.

Porter had married at sixteen and was divorced several years later, so she knew well the forms of dissension that can alienate a couple’s affections despite the intimate bond of marriage. The wife of this story, however, is not up to the standards of her later, more fully developed female figures, for example, Miranda of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” or Laura of “Flowering Judas.” For one thing, the wife in “Rope” is not possessed of their powers of self-awareness or their discriminating sensibilities. Strong forces are at work inside her, to be sure, but the narrator will merely report their superficial consequences—for example, she “grew livid about the mouth” and “looked quite dangerous . . . her face turned slightly purple, and she screamed with laughter.” Despite her husband’s glib confidence that he understands her, the reader cannot so easily reconcile the disproportionate gap between what she says and what she knows to be true in the story world.