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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015

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.

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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 extended flashback, revealing the significance of the friendship that Elsie had with Sam Adams and the uneasy triangle it formed with Ted. The flamboyance of Adams, the factory owner, is in sharp contrast to the dour steadiness of Ted. Adams, a forty-year-old bachelor, is a ladies’ man, fashionably dressed and possessed of considerable charm. He is at home on the dance floor, in contrast to Ted, who does not dance. This is one of the critical points of the story and is highlighted by an incident, recalled in a flashback, that leads directly to the gift of the white stocking. Ted and Elsie attend a Christmas party given by Adams. Adams invites Elsie to dance, and she finds the experience completely exhilarating. Something about Adams, “some male warmth of attraction,” ignites her; the rhythm of the dance and the close physical presence of her partner seem to transport her away from herself, into the deepest recesses of her partner’s being. It is a new state of consciousness for her, and a pure physical pleasure. Adams has touched a vein of feeling, sensuality, and physical response in her that is quite beyond the reach of dull Ted, moodily playing cribbage in another room, and Elsie becomes momentarily aware of a grudge against Ted for failing to satisfy this aspect of her being. However, she is also disturbed by Adams. Even as she dances with him, she cannot quiet the voice of conscience. The intoxication of the dance is not free of tension. On the contrary, it strains her, and some part of her remains closed to Adams and will not be opened. That part belongs to Ted. What she loves about him is his permanence and his solidity, yet part of her being is closed to him. She will not allow him to penetrate her feelings. Although the situation is temporarily resolved in a flood of tenderness and compassion as they return from the dance, she is nevertheless caught between the attractions she feels toward both men. The seeds of the story’s climax have been sown.

Now, however, the couple have married and Adams appears to have been forgotten. The narrative resumes as Ted returns home from work tired and depressed. The love Elsie undoubtedly feels for him is masked by her awareness of his inability to give her everything she needs, and her behavior becomes outrageously provocative. Putting on the stockings, she cruelly and deliberately taunts him, dancing around the room, lifting her skirt to her knees and kicking her legs up at him. They exchange bitter words, and the situation becomes full of barely suppressed hatred. His anger becomes uncontrollable. She is frightened but insists that she will not return the stockings. As the language becomes abusive, Ted threatens his wife with physical violence, which finally erupts as she tells him the truth about Adams’s earlier gifts of earrings and a brooch. Striking her across the mouth, Ted is filled with the desire to destroy her utterly. A final catastrophe is avoided, however, as he is overcome with weariness and disgust at the whole situation. Slowly and deliberately, he locates the offending jewelry, packs it up, and sends it back to Adams. Returning to the sight of his wife’s tear-stained face, he is moved to remorse and compassion. As she sobs a half-completed retraction and apology, “I never meant—,” a flood of tenderness envelops them both, and the story ends on a note of anguished reconciliation.

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