(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When the smooth married life of a rather ordinary young couple is disrupted by the intrusion of a third person, the couple find themselves swept into an explosive situation that is beyond their capacity to control. There is certainly nothing remarkable about the protagonists, Ted and Elsie Whiston. They have been married two years, and live in a small, homey dwelling, their first house. She is a former factory worker, small and pretty, but also coquettish and superficial (“she seemed witty, although, when her sayings were repeated, they were entirely trivial”). He is a traveling sales representative, slow but solid, totally confident in the love of his wife, in whom he seems to find his whole being enriched and made whole. She has grown bored, however, and now tends to take him for granted, even mocking and jeering at him, although in spite of this she feels a deep attachment to him. It is the tension between these two contradictory attitudes that propels the story along its course.

The story begins on the morning of Valentine’s Day. Elsie is excited to find in the mail a package addressed to her. She discovers that it contains a long white stocking, in which a pair of pearl earrings has been placed. She puts them on immediately, and her vain pleasure at the sight of herself in the mirror sets an ominous tone for the remainder of the story. Hiding the earrings, Elsie pretends to her husband that the white stocking is only a sample, but at breakfast she feels compelled to admit that this was a lie. Throughout the story, her naïveté, her insensitivity to the subtlety and delicacy of the feelings with which she is dealing, and her vacillation and duplicity contribute to the story’s violent climax.

It transpires that the stocking was a gift from her former employer and admirer, Sam Adams, and she unconsciously goads her husband more by telling him that earlier in the year Adams sent her another stocking, but she concealed it from him. Concealment followed by later confession is her regular pattern of behavior. Worse is to follow (at least from Ted’s point of view). She has been seeing Sam Adams, but only, she says, for coffee at the Royal. As Ted goes to work, they part in a state of unresolved tension, caught in a situation that neither of them has the maturity to grasp fully or to resolve. Cut adrift from their stable, day-to-day moorings, they are now at the mercy of powerful subconscious forces.

The middle section of the story is an...

(The entire section is 1015 words.)