Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
The story opens with an overview of the furnishings and atmosphere in the homely, even unfashionable, suite of Martha Foote, the head housekeeper at the Senate Hotel. Her black walnut bed, chest, and desk are substantial pieces of furniture and sparkling clean. Martha’s taste differs from that of the hotel decorator, who responds to the latest fashions and has supplied the guest rooms with modern, fragile furnishings. Martha is a model of midwestern values and virtue, and her substantial furniture suggests the strength of her character.
A crisis occurs when one of the guests at the Senate Hotel develops insomnia and becomes hysterical. The resident in room 618, Geisha McCoy, has been terrorizing the hotel for two days. Geisha is so successful an actor that she is paid a thousand dollars a week, but everything at the Senate Hotel seems to be getting on her nerves. She first charges that the blankets are vile and filthy. In fact, the blankets are dirty because Blanche, Geisha McCoy’s maid, gave her a massage with them in hopes that she could relax enough to fall asleep. Geisha claims that she has been unable to sleep because of the clanking of chains and strange howls. Blanche is convinced that ghosts are responsible for the noises, and she, too, is becoming hysterical.
Martha solves the mystery of the disturbance by producing the cause of the noise: Mrs. Anna Czarnik, clad in her awkward boots. The clanking noise was her pail, the swishing, her rag, and the wail, her singing. Anna has been singing a dumka, a song of mourning. She is expressing grief and bitterness against the armies who have invaded her Polish homeland.
Geisha threatens to have Anna dismissed, but Martha dissuades her by telling her that Anna is a natural comedian. By describing Anna very sympathetically as a gallant entertainer who makes the other scrubwomen laugh, Martha ingeniously suggests a parallel between Anna and Geisha. Realizing that more lies behind Geisha’s nervous hysteria than simple insomnia, Martha encourages Geisha to confide in her. It is clear that Geisha feels that she has lost her talent for relating to her audiences. The actor says that she is driven crazy by the people who sit where she can see them and knit, wondering how she can be funny when she is hypnotized by three stone-faced women knitting olive-drab wool. She then breaks down and confesses that she is also worried about her son who is now in France, but she lashes out when Martha tries to comfort her.
Martha then sums up the moral of the story by pointing out that when people brood about their troubles, they lose the human touch that enables them to sympathize and communicate with others. This is a particularly apt concern for Geisha because her art, and her success as a performer, is based on empathy and communication. She is amazed at Martha’s insight and expresses incredulity that Martha is actually the hotel housekeeper, believing that she must be an aristocrat who has seen better days. Martha quite complacently assures her that she is the housekeeper and that she is not a gentlewoman fallen on hard times but that her father drove a hack and that her mother ran a boarding house. Geisha, relieved and refreshed after confiding her fears, assures Martha that she can now sleep, even in room 618. Just as Martha is about to leave the room, Geisha asks her if she thinks that Anna might be willing to sell her shoes. The question indicates that Geisha will now be impersonating Anna in her performance and that she has regained her common touch.
As the story concludes, Irish Nellie, another maid, asks Martha how her son is, and the reader learns that he, too, is in France and that he has been wounded. In contrast to Geisha McCoy, who has become so apprehensive about her son that she cannot function as an entertainer, Martha continues to do her job even though her son has been wounded. Nellie has brought Martha her evening meal, a dinner that Nellie regards as much too plain. Pointing out that Martha could have any number of delicacies, from strawberries to ice cream, she marvels that Martha would select corned beef and cabbage and assures her that if she had the status of housekeeper, she would definitely select something more exotic than corned beef and cabbage. Martha insists that if Nellie were in her place, she, too, would dine on homely fare.
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