Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Secret Lives of Dieters” uses its three characters to illustrate the changing nature of male-female relationships in the wake of the women’s movement. Donald wants only to be with someone; Louisa wants only to be in control; Polly wants only someone whom she cannot have.

Donald illustrates both the positive and negative extremes of the sensitive new man who began to emerge in the media in the 1970’s. On the one hand, he is a nurturer—he plans and cooks lovely low-calorie meals for Louisa and himself, he shops for foods that will tempt Polly to eat and thus build up her strength, and he hopes to illustrate children’s books. On the negative side, Donald is a passive spectator of his own life—he has been unwilling to pursue the advanced degree that he needs to progress in his career until he is forced into it by Louisa, and he is unwilling to confront Louisa or make any demands on her, despite the fact that she is sexually involved with another man even as she continues to live with him. At the end of the story, Donald stares out the window, paralyzed with depression, realizing that he is now thin and on his way to graduate school but is alone.

Polly and Louisa present opposite images of women: Louisa is strong, psychologically and physically, an assertive woman who takes charge of her own life; she shows no emotion as she leaves the caring, responsible Donald and moves efficiently on to another man. Polly is weak and thin,...

(The entire section is 471 words.)