Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

“The Woman at the Store” was composed in 1911, when its author was barely more than twenty-one; together with two other tales (“Ole Underwood” and “Millie”), it treats New Zealand scenes and introduces offstage violence to obtain its effect. The repulsive but rather hilarious drinking party abruptly comes to an end when the news of the woman’s murder of her “missing” husband is revealed by the small child. At a stroke, the story’s meanings are completely turned around. At first, the reader is induced to believe that this is a unique (if somewhat sordid) tale of the wilds—remote, unusual, worthy of being carefully recorded by the narrator. Slowly it becomes clear, however, that, far from being an atypical travelogue, it retells instead “the same old story,” albeit askew and in grotesque parody: the dapper and brazen male flirting with and seducing the innocent maid. Then, with a last twist and turn, the author reveals that the woman is quite capable of giving as good as she gets, and the implicit irony becomes evident: The reader is left to contemplate a savage act quite typical of civilization; after all, Greek tragedy has often portrayed family feuds and parricide; one need not travel into the bush to find barbarism, for it is not the Maori tribes that need be feared, but a lonely, bedraggled woman and a smart, egoistic gentleman caller.

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Moreover, beneath the glib surface lies the psychological portrayal of loneliness and entrapment. The buxom barmaid has been captured by love, transported to the wilderness, and virtually abandoned by a husband who was always on the run. He often left her for days, even weeks, only to return, demanding a kiss: “Sometimes I’d turn a bit nasty, and then ’e’d go off again, and if I took it all right, ’e’d wait till ’e could twist me round ’is finger, then ’e’d say, ’Well, so long, I’m off.’” Worst of all was her complete transformation. In six years, she has been translated from civilization to isolation, from good looks to ugliness, from...

(The entire section contains 548 words.)

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