Themes and Meanings
On the landing of the stairway to the Dorsets’ ballroom is a small color print of Il Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, torn out of a book and tacked to the wall. Its presence gains significance because of the story’s title. The original is a Mannerist work depicting allegorical figures listed in the title: Venus and Cupid engaged in sly flirtation with each other, a desiccated shape of Time prophesying the end of Folly. It does very well as an illustration of Alfred and Louisa, with their faintly incestuous devotion to each other and their staunch refusal to acknowledge the passing of time. It is this unhealthy and unproductive relationship that poses a threat to the children of Chatham—not the Dorsets’ simpleminded snobbery. The dancing parties seem designed to encourage others to follow their pattern, and perhaps the children’s joke was born of a not-wholly-realized sense of the danger. Perhaps, also, that accounts ultimately for the breach between Ned and Emily.
Some readers see the story as an allegory of the decay of southern gentility, a Faulknerian theme, but that social significance seems too heavy for the tone of this narrative. There is obvious social criticism in the mockery of Vesey Place manners, but the mockery contains more amusement than disgust. The narrator is still in and of the society he describes; he sees past the facade and acknowledges changes in the new generation, but he has not rejected either Chatham or its old-fashioned values. He seems more concerned with individual people than with the social scene as a whole—somewhat sorry for the Dorsets though glad that the children are free of them, forever puzzled and a bit unhappy about consequences for the Meriwethers.