As the story begins, the reader is caught in the middle of miscommunication. Bob Mott is trying to explain to Katherine Alexander why he has lost his job. She is distracted; he is embarrassed. She is suspicious, slightly disgusted by Mr. Mott. The narrator abruptly shifts attention to Katherine’s life story. She has grown up barely admiring her retired father, frightened of becoming her struggling, unattractive mother. Her older sisters have married; her older brother, returned from the navy, works in a parts factory. Katherine supports her mother, yet she has saved enough to earn a degree from the university in the School of Social Work.
In her senior year, Katherine meets a young man who is studying to become a dentist. Although at first he is “on the rebound” from a love affair, he eventually falls in love with Katherine. As they begin to plan for marriage, Katherine’s mother becomes ill. The consequent gall bladder operation is “a vast and complicated affair” that interrupts the young couple’s plans. Katherine begins her social work; the young man strains over his studies; the mother becomes nervous for her daughter. Impatient after months, then years, of delay, the young man ends their relationship. Katherine is devastated—mostly by his “weakness.”
After this happens, at age twenty-six, it seems that Katherine grows closer to her mother—sharing a loneliness. Her energies are devoted almost exclusively to work. She becomes expert at distinguishing the truth from lies. She also distances herself emotionally from the suffering that she sees; her idealism descends into cool distrust. She feels uncomfortable “with those certain women.” At one point she takes an unhealthy pleasure in humiliating a prostitute; her victim, enraged, lashes back, calling her an “ugly bitch.” It is then that she meets Mr. Mott.
The narration returns to the moment at the beginning of the story: Mr. Mott tries to explain himself; Katherine, disturbed by the prostitute’s curse, cannot understand his problem. Mr. Mott makes himself clear—he has lost his job and plans to abandon his pregnant wife.
The narrator, once again, shifts back into Katherine’s private life. Her mother sickens and dies, leaving “everything” to Katherine. Out of a sense of loyalty to the memory of her proud, bigoted, mother, she refuses to sell the family house to “colored.” She gives herself completely to her job. By choice, she distances herself utterly from the people...
(The entire section is 623 words.)