Because the characters in Alice Adams’s story inhabit a larger world, the opening section of the story is devoted to a description not so much of character as of setting. The playground is discussed in terms of levels where the different ages and sexes are assigned. The reader is also introduced to the southern university town and the intricacies of its class system even before the reader meets Car for the first time because the class hierarchies determine to a large extent the type of relationship Car and Emily can have. Given her character, her eagerness to conform and lead a “normal life,” it is clear early that rigid social conventions will not allow an intimacy to develop between Car and the narrator. They are separated by too great a gulf.
If the southern social world plays a significant role in the story, so does the southern climate. Emily, who had recently moved from the North, witnesses her first southern spring at the same time that she enters into society. She is “astounded by the bursting opulence” of spring, “enchanted with the yards of the stately houses of professors.” This opulence and enchantment seem to conspire against any hope of attachment or communion between Car and Emily; if she is attracted to opulence and stateliness, Car can be no object of desire. He is necessary only because he allows her to have an “altered awareness” of herself. Like the southern spring that seemed so “extraordinary in itself,” Emily began to see that she could “command attention,” that she was pretty and was no longer invisible.
What is interesting about the “present time” of the story, the moment when she reads the paper in which the bit of gossip about a “man named Carstairs Jones” appears, is that it is without setting, without season, without time. The present of the story encroaches on the past not at all; in fact, it is the past that is richly alive, vibrant, full of color and tension. All we know of the narrator’s current life is that she is married to a “successful surgeon” and she is “haunted by everything that ever happened in” her life. She is haunted by Car’s memory because of his ability to live at a distance from respectability, from conventionality, from her world.