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...

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“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.

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 sanity to near madness. She has had one child and four miscarriages. Incessantly she reflects on her intolerable life and her intolerable husband: “You’ve broken my spirit and spoiled my looks, and wot for—that’s wot I’m driving at.” Again and again, over and over, “I ’ear them two words knockin’ inside me all the time—’Wot for!’” That “wot for” is ultimately a question directed to the universe: What is it all about? Why are human beings driven by whim and passion into impossible situations? In murdering her husband, she has at least initiated some action against a cruel force in the world, but she remains caught in its web. Indeed, her fling with the passing Jo is in one sense a refreshment from the cruel grind of her life, but in another, it is merely the reenactment of the servitude she had endured at the hands of her husband. Ironically, the woman at the store continues in a hopeless round, for she is at once barbarian and citizen, rebel and victim. In a miserable little oasis in the wild, amid a plentitude of stores, she has somehow—maddeningly, incomprehensibly—frittered her own small storehouse away.

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