Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Wolff conveys his story primarily through dialogue. Character, motivation, psychological perspective, and insight, as well as meaning, are revealed mainly through utterances of the characters. They talk in the terse, clipped sentences and fragments of sentences of those who have been married for a long time and have little need for words to communicate with each other. At the same time, because they take opposing viewpoints, some verbal conversation is necessary simply to further the conflict and increase the tension.

Like most couples who have been married a long time, each knows much of what the other will say. Toward that end the author, telling the story from an omniscient point of view, indicates that both characters know the effects of their own statements before they make them. Therefore, they willingly enter the argument—and they willfully keep it going to move it to their final separation at the end of the story, which is also the evident end of their relationship.

The setting of the story is the ordinary kitchen of a typical modern home. It has no distinctive characteristics because the author is writing about all such kitchens in all such houses, and about the inevitable breakdown of such relationships. The spotlessness of the linoleum and other fixtures recalls the sterility of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933).

Wolff uses two obvious symbols. In cutting herself, Anne is offering sacrificial blood to the relationship. It falls on the floor (that is, the underpinning) of their home and relation. The husband succeeds in cleaning up the blood, but not in cleaning up the mess. When the husband takes out the trash and sees two dogs fight over it, the animals are reenacting what has just occurred in the kitchen. Human nature is animalistic. The selfishness of the dogs in refusing to share the garbage reflects the determination of the human couple to force each other to “say yes”—to agree to be submissive. The consequence of such conduct is invariably separation. The couple not only learn that they are strangers to each other, but that this has always been the case between men and women.