White’s story is a sad narrative of a lack of fulfilment and a desperate, failing passion born from that. Stories in literature, film and TV are full of the aching attraction felt between couples, either requited or unrequited. White gives us a version in late middle age and balances pathos with repulsion.
The Woman’s Subservience
However, it is hard to avoid sympathy for Ella in the first part of the story, reduced to sitting with her husband in front of the house watching the passing traffic as a dull routine. Not only is her life monotonous, but White makes it clear that she is utterly subservient to Royal, her husband. As he focalises the third person narrative in her perspective, the reader is acutely aware of this, and her acceptance of it. She accepts that he knows things because ‘he was a man’ and sees herself as inferior ‘on account of he was more educated’.
Ella is also relegated to the old cane chair, despite the fact that is ‘had torn her winter cardy’ and ‘laddered several pairs of stockings’. Royal blames her for the choice of their home for retirement, saying ‘You should’ve headed me off.’ White shows that she tiptoes around her husband, trying ‘never to upset him by any show of emotion’, and thinking that she must ‘never stop humouring a sick man.’ White introduces so many details which add to the impression of a dominating, unpleasant Royal and a quiet, careful Ella – his spitting on the veranda which she is obliged to ignore, her treating him to ‘nice little bits of fillet’ while she settles for ‘chump chop’. The reader is likely to be torn between sympathy for her predicament and frustration with her compliance. The reader is particularly aware of that compliance because of the focalising of her perspective which makes her thought processes clear. The reader knows she accepts Royal’s correction of her pronunciation because men ‘could manage more of the hard words.’
Royal’s name makes his dominance clear – ‘his mother’s little king’. Notably, Ella herself is seldom named. Although it is written from her perspective, Ella is usually referred to merely by the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘you’. The most extensive references to her name occur at the beginning of the second section, where she remembers Royal’s mother and her mother constructing the subservient role for her – ‘Ella’s a plain little thing’ and ‘My Ella can wash and bake against all comers.’ These snatches of dialogue show the embedded sexism of society, with women not only accepting but creating the acquiescent position.
As the narrative gradually reveals the history of their marriage, Royal becomes less and less likeable. His employment history is one of pride and misjudgement and his marital history takes little notice of his wife, rejecting her ‘wet kisses’ and dismissing her desire to have a baby, which ‘was her secret grief’. Even when the doctor, evidently discussing her failure to conceive, says ‘it’s sometimes the man’, Ella ‘didn’t even want to hear… because a man’s pride could so easily be hurt.’ Throughout their time together, Ella has felt ‘it was her to blame’ for every problem. White’s inclusion of frank details of illness shows that her later caring role has its humiliations for both of them as she assists Royal into his wheelchair and into bed where she has to ‘rub the bed-sores, and stick the pan under him.’ Running through the section of Royal’s decline are two motifs: the passing of the man in the pink Holden car and Ella’s recurrent dream of the same man.
There are hints throughout the story of Ella’s frustrated passions. There are not only her ‘wet kisses’ but the violence of an image of ‘suddenly’ biting off Royals’ nose, a sudden feeling which ‘disgusted’ her. Her abundant garden, notably unappreciated by Royal, with its damp ‘maidenhair’, so called because its delicate feathery foliage is supposed to resemble a woman’s pubic hair, and the vibrant colours of the hollyhocks, cassias, hibiscus and cinerarias are suggestive of life, fertility and fecundity. Notably, the cineraria roots are described as ’pink, swollen teats’, further emphasising the links with fertility.
The items she packs away after Royal’s death show a dichotomy: Hubert’s Crusade is a didactic book promoting Christian living, while the picture of the Cities of the Plain must represent those fleeing from the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, sites of sexual deviation.
It is appropriate that when Ella finally meets the man from the Holden, seeking to use her phone, it is amongst the luxuriant foliage of her garden. He proves to be ‘not at all an impressive man’, with a ‘hare-lip’ as well as the ‘funny shape of his head’, so their sudden embrace and clumsy kiss after the phone call takes the reader by surprise. However, in a sentence White reveals the sudden breaking of a lifetime of frustrated passion:
‘She kissed as though she might never succeed in healing all the wounds they had ever suffered.’
Despite her age, Ella’s behaviour in preparation for the man’s second visit is like a schoolgirl on a first date, learning to make coffee and how to apply make-up. Here White balances the reader’s senses of sympathy and of the ridiculous, especially as Ella’s attempt with lipstick results in an absurd appearance as ‘her mouth exploded into a purple flower’.
But at the climax of the story, the man collapses amongst the plants, the symptoms of pain suggesting a heart attack. Ella’s dialogue is desperate, broken by dashes and full of the lexis of passion – ‘dearest… darling… love’ – drawn not from experience, but ‘from the mouths of actors.’ The ending, as Ella attempts to ‘force kisses’ on the dying man, whose name she does not know, is simultaneously poignant, absurd and disturbing – but why should love and passion be restricted to the young?
Narrative methods to consider:
- Focalised third person narration
- Lexical and metaphoric field