Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972
Mary is a young girl, apparently about eleven years old, who undergoes a small, gentle rite of passage that forces her to take notice of the world of other children and adults. At the beginning of the story, she is a confirmed loner who stays away from other children, preferring to play in her own domain—a clay pit located a mile outside town. By the story’s end, her seclusion sustains her less satisfactorily, and its security appears illusive.
Mary is a “scrupulously clean child” with “well-arranged curls”; her predominant characteristic, made immediately apparent in the story, is that she would like reality to be similarly orderly. She plays alone, because she perceives other children, whose games are noisy and hectic, to be a threat to the world of her imagination. That world is sustained by the clay pit, which Mary imagines is the barracks for a troop of soldiers that she commands. The military life suits her, for just as she cannot bear uncleanliness, she is a stickler for routine.
A mishap disrupts her routine, however, and leads her toward a series of experiences that will submit the world of her clay pit to the influence of the wider world beyond it. While playing in the pit, she slips, gets mud on her coat, and decides that she must wait until dark to go home. She thinks it necessary to concoct for her troops an explanation of why she has remained longer than usual, and tells them that she has decided to give them extra training to make them into a crack “mountain-goat fighting” unit. Despite this ready explanation, the unexpected mishap has worked cracks in her make-believe world. She is certain that her troops will accept her explanation, but she has difficulty accepting the deceit herself.
Other changes in her occur. She experiences new sensations: As night falls, she begins to feel uneasy, like an intruder in her own domain. She skulks home along the darkest streets to hide her dirty coat, somewhat ashamed and apprehensive about the possibility of a reprimand.
At home, her father does reprimand her and tells her to play at the playground like all the other children. The next day, Mary nevertheless returns to her clay pit, jubilant at feeling, for the first time, undaunted by her father’s authority. She prepares her men for battle with the children on the playground. When her father drives by without stopping to chastise her again, she is perplexed to find her jubilation somewhat deflated.
A boy, Franklin, appears. He has come from the house above the clay pit. He is both similar to, and clearly different from, Mary. He is fastidious in a worldly sense—he looks “prudently” up and down the street as he crosses to the pit—but he is indifferent to smearing his coat with clay as he slides into the pit. Because Mary has not seen Franklin before, she scoffs dubiously at him when he says that he lives in the house. When he abruptly returns to the house, she follows him, her curiosity engaged by her righteous indignation at finding that she cannot command in him the same respect she does in her troops.
The state of the house, which is being repainted, challenges Mary’s appetite for orderliness at the same time that Franklin’s indifference to her challenges her egocentricity. The room into which she follows Franklin is so cluttered with furniture that she is forced to squeeze between two bureaus, “pinching her flesh painfully”—the challenge has an intrusive, tangible dimension. Oddly, however, the house also contrasts favorably with her clay pit in some respects. She sits in a chair “deeper and softer” than any she has experienced. With these and several other touches of detail, Jane Bowles suggests that the attraction Mary finds in isolating herself from the world beyond the clay pit is being questioned and subverted.
With the appearance of Franklin’s mother, this process quickens. She, like the bureaus, inadvertently demands Mary’s attention. The room is so cramped that the mother’s knees constantly touch Mary’s as she addresses her in an adult, albeit immature and gossipy, fashion. She tells Mary, for example, that she would rather have had a girl than a boy; that would have permitted her to discuss her favorite topic—furnishings. Ironically, she also reveals that Franklin, who has led Mary out of her isolation, is himself a loner: “He sits in a lot and don’t go out and contact at all.”
The chat, in which neither Mary nor Franklin do any of the talking, is interrupted when the mother tells Franklin to fetch a tea box filled with candy. The social encounter ends when Mary selects a stick of green candy and abruptly leaves. While she continues to harbor an immature hostility toward other people, she also experiences subtle positive results from the encounter with Franklin and his mother. Her perspective on the area surrounding the clay pit has previously been from down in the pit, which she always approached from below; now, she commands a wider panorama from her position uphill from the pit: “She had never experienced the need to look at things from a distance before, nor had she felt the relief that it can bring.”
The next day, she returns to the pit, but her make-believe world is now seriously jeopardized. She forgets for the first time to summon her men to order with a bugle call before addressing them. She cannot convince herself of the reality of her barracks.
It is only at this point, when Mary has begun to lose some of her imaginative independence and to incorporate some of the socialization that her father has tried to dictate to her, that her father appears, apparently to reprimand her again.
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