The Painted Door

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dell Books edition of The Painted Door published in 1980.
The Painted Door Quotes

“You said yourself we could expect a storm. It isn’t right to leave me here alone. Surely I’m as important as your father.”
He glanced up uneasily, then drinking off his coffee tried to reassure her. “But there’s nothing to be afraid of—even supposing it does start to storm.”

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

The roots of John and Ann’s troubles are evident in this brief exchange. John has made what he feels is a pragmatic, self-sacrificing choice to check on his elderly father. The coming storm compels him to make sure his loved ones are safe. Although Ann can see his reasoning, she cannot help but feel that he is abandoning her. Although she protests that she feels unsafe, what she really fears is not the snowstorm but the loneliness and boredom of spending a long day and evening alone in the house. John can see that she is unhappy, and that worries him, but he misunderstands the reason for her unhappiness. His intense focus on physical and material safety blinds him to her emotional turmoil.

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In the clear, bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region strangely alien to life. Even the distant farmsteads she could see served only to intensify a sense of isolation. Scattered across the face of so vast and bleak a wilderness it was difficult to conceive them as a testimony of human hardihood and endurance. Rather they seemed futile, lost, to cower before the implacability of snow-swept earth and clear pale sun-chilled sky.

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), The Neighbors
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Someone else might see the glittering, pure snow outside the window as something beautiful. For Ann, however, it only serves as a reminder of how isolated and lonely her life is. The landscape reflects her emotional state. Much as the neighbors’ distant houses seem like desperate, futile attempts to resist nature, John’s endless self-sacrifice seems like a desperate, futile attempt to build a fulfilling, happy life for them as a couple. It is clear from this description that Ann does not love the place she lives, and that she does not have a significant support system or social life outside of her marriage. When John leaves her for the day, she feels as though he is abandoning her to face this bleak land alone.

She stood at the stove motionless a moment, then turned to him uneasily. “Will you shave then, John—now—before you go?”
He glanced at her questioningly, and avoiding his eyes she tried to explain, “I mean—he may be here before you’re back—and you won’t have a chance then.”
“But it’s only Steven—he’s seen me like this—”
“He’ll be shaved, though—that’s what I mean—and I’d like you to spend a little time on yourself.”
He stood up, stroking the heavy stubble on his chin. “Maybe I should—only it softens up the skin too much. Especially when I’ve got to face the wind.”

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John (speaker), Steven
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Ann and John seem to speak comfortably and openly with each other, their communication is heavily restricted by their gendered perspectives. Ann tries to behave in ways she thinks are befitting of a good farmer’s wife. When John fails to understand how his leaving makes her feel, she tries a different tactic to assuage her frustration. When she says she wants him to spend a little time on himself, she is trying to tell him that she wishes they could relax and enjoy each other more in the present, instead of only focusing on practicalities and planning for a distant future. Yet Ann feels that if she were to express her frustration fully it would sound selfish and ungrateful, so she only hints at it by asking John to shave in preparation for Steven’s company. John’s practical, literal interpretation of her request completely misses this important subtext. This also foreshadows (perhaps in Ann’s mind as well) the comparisons Ann will make later between Steven’s boyish, youthful looks and John’s weathered, bearded face.

“Warm and safe—I’m a fool. It’s a good chance when he’s away to paint. The day will go quickly. I won’t have time to brood.”
Since November now the paint had been waiting warmer weather. The frost in the walls on a day like this would crack and peel it as it dried, but she needed something to keep her hands occupied, something to stave off the gathering cold and loneliness.

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John
Related Symbols: The Painted Door
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Even when she is alone, Ann tries to make sure she is keeping up the role of the good wife. Painting the door and the rest of the kitchen is a way for her to keep herself busy, and also an attempt at bringing something fresh and new into their dull, repetitive home life. She knows that whatever distraction or pleasure the paint brings her will fade quickly, but she decides to paint anyways because she doesn’t know what else to do. This is similar to her superficial attempts to get John to change by asking him to stay home or shave, when she knows that she has not addressed the deeper problem of their different wants and needs.

“It’s better with four, but at least we can talk. That’s all I need—someone to talk to. John never talks. He’s stronger—he doesn’t understand. But he likes Steven—no matter what the neighbors say. Maybe he’ll have him come again, and some other young people, too. It’s what we need, both of us, to help keep young ourselves...And then before we know it we’ll be into March. It’s cold still in March sometimes, but you never mind the same. At least you’re beginning to think about spring.”

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John, Steven, The Neighbors
Page Number: 99-100
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Ann acknowledges out loud the main source of her frustration. She knows that she is lonely and needs someone to talk to, but rather than see this as a legitimate need she identifies it as a weakness. She thinks John is “stronger” than she is because he doesn’t seem to get lonely. Ann’s hint that the neighbors gossip about John not liking Steven shows us that the neighbors are not a sufficient source of friendship and social life for Ann (and also perhaps suggests past tensions or jealousies). She sees them as part of her frustrations, not part of the solution. This is also an example of Ann attempting to control the passage of time. She thinks that the slow change of the seasons is to blame for her unhappiness, and focuses on the idea that spring will bring happiness.

For spring was drudgery again. John never hired a man to help him. He wanted a mortgage-free farm, then a new house and pretty clothes for her. Sometimes, because with the best of crops it was going to take so long to pay off anyway, she wondered whether they mightn’t better let the mortgage wait a little. Before they were worn out, before their best years were gone. It was something of life she wanted, not just a house and furniture; something of John, not pretty clothes when she would be too old to wear them. But John of course couldn’t understand. To him it seemed only right that she should have the pretty clothes—only right that he, fit for nothing else, should slave away fifteen hours a day to give them to her.

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the difference between Ann and John’s worldviews is made explicit. John is happy to work hard in the present as long as he knows that he is being responsible and saving up to give his wife a comfortable life in the future. Ann doesn’t mind making sacrifices, but she would rather enjoy her youth and keep working into middle age than work herself to the bone now and be “too old” to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Both John and Ann want the best for each other, and both of them are obsessively focused on the future. These features draw them together, but a fundamental difference in what makes them happy has driven them apart. This is further exacerbated by the gender roles that keep them from communicating—John assumes that Ann just wants a house, furniture, and “pretty clothes,” when she really wants “something of life” in the present.

But now, alone with herself in the winter silence, she saw the spring for what it really was. This spring—next spring—all the springs and summers still to come. While they grew old, while their bodies warped, while their minds kept shriveling dry and empty like their lives. “I mustn’t,” she said aloud again. “I married him—and he’s a good man. I mustn’t keep on this way. It will be noon before long, and then time to think about supper...

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

By now Ann cannot even manage to convince herself that the turning of the seasons will relieve her of her anguish. Just moments after she expresses excitement about the arrival of spring, she changes her mind. The future can hold no hope for her as long as it is just a chain of days exactly like those she is living out in the dull, stifling present. Ann does love John, and feels an intense loyalty to him. Unfortunately, she feels that she can only express this loyalty by repressing her own frustrations. Even though she has just said that the coming of spring reminds her that she is one season nearer to death, she tries to comfort herself by imagining that this particular day, at least, will pass quickly.

She was young still, eager for excitement and distractions; and John’s steadfastness rebuked her vanity, made her complaints seem weak and trivial. She went on fretfully, “If he’d listen to me sometimes and not be so stubborn we wouldn’t be living still in a house like this. Seven years in two rooms—seven years and never a new stick of furniture... There—as if another coat of paint could make it different anyway.”

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John
Related Symbols: The Painted Door
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

Because of the stereotype that young women can be frivolous and want silly things while men are frugal and practical, Ann sees her own desires as embarrassing and invalid. On some level, however, she knows that they are more than just silliness. Ann believes that by spending a little more and saving a little less, they could both be enjoying life in a larger space. All she can do is express her thoughts gently to John, however, and he does not feel obligated to listen to her. Painting the inside of the house is Ann’s attempt to take control of something she doesn’t want in the first place, and she feels frustrated by the feeble amount of agency she is limited to.

But she felt little dread or uneasiness at the prospect of spending the night alone. It was the first time she had been left like this on her own resources, and her reaction, now that she could face and appraise her situation calmly, was gradually to feel it a kind of adventure and responsibility. It stimulated her.

Related Characters: Ann (speaker)
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

When she thinks that neither John nor Steven will be able to make it through the storm, Ann is surprised that she feels liberated. Without a male presence in the house, she feels she is allowed to do things which she would never normally do, like venture outside to feed the animals. Ann craves a change in routine and control over her own destiny, and the idea of being left alone for the evening gives her a little taste of both those things. The loneliness she struggles with is not necessarily the result of a lack of company, but a lack of company combined with a lack of freedom. Even though being left behind by John initially made her angry and afraid, having to survive on her own makes her feel slightly more powerful and free.

He was erect, tall, square-shouldered. His hair was dark and trim, his lips curved, soft, and full. While John—she made the comparison swiftly—was thick-set, heavy-jowled, and stooped. He always stood before her helpless, a kind of humility and wonderment in his attitude. And Steven now smiled on her appraisingly with the worldly-wise assurance of one for whom a woman holds neither mystery nor illusion.

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John, Steven
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

Ann defines herself in relation to the men in her life. When she is with John, she feels the burden of living up to his wholesome, hardworking, dull personality. Steven’s youthful arrogance and handsome face give Ann the feeling that she can be something more than just a farmer’s wife. When Steven looks at her, he understands her vulnerability and is seemingly contemplating the idea of sleeping with his friend’s wife. Although she does not necessarily want to be seen as vulnerable or sexually available, Ann is desperate for understanding and connection of any kind.

Looking down at him as he slept, half smiling still, his lips relaxed in the conscienceless complacency of his achievement, she understood that thus he was revealed in his entirety—all there ever was or ever could be. John was the man. With him lay all the future. For tonight, slowly and contritely through the days and years to come, she would try to make amends.

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John, Steven
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Having briefly tried on the role of being Steven’s mistress, Ann realizes that this was a mistake and she prefers being John’s loyal wife. This is yet another example of Ann focusing entirely on the future. She doesn’t discuss whether or not she enjoyed being with Steven or prefers his company. Instead, she makes the accurate observation that John offers moral depth and a stable future, while Steven offers only momentary distraction—he is portrayed as relatively shallow and arrogant. The circumstances in which she lives prevent Ann from building her own future, so she must rely on the men in her life for structure and stability. By cheating on John, Ann has also created a new kind of balance in their relationship. Previously, she had not felt that there was a good enough reason for the intensity of the sacrifices she was required to make. Now, her guilt over this episode of infidelity makes her feel as though she owes John more than ever, and will be happy to work hard for many years beside him.

“He was south of here,” they said wonderingly when she told them how he had come across the hills. “Straight south—you’d wonder how he could have missed the buildings. It was the wind last night, coming every way at once. He shouldn’t have tried. There was a double wheel around the moon.”
She looked past them a moment, then as if to herself said simply, “If you knew him, though—John would try.”

Related Characters: Ann (speaker), John, The Neighbors
Related Symbols: The Double Wheel Around the Moon
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Up until this point at the very end of the story, Ann has portrayed herself and John as in opposition to or disconnection from each other. Although they love each other, their individual perspectives and desires have driven them apart. After his death, however, Ann is able to acknowledge the depth of their connection. The neighbors, like Ann early on in the story, mention that the double wheel around the moon would have warned any reasonable person that a horrific storm was on its way. Although she had previously denied it, here Ann admits that she knew John would never let anything prevent him from reaching his loved ones. We see that she and John knew each other better than anyone else knew them, and that although she has just slept with Steven and is surrounded by the neighbors, Ann is more isolated than ever before.

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