The narrator explains that as the railway expanded across southern Africa, little clusters of buildings appeared, “the centers of farming districts.” They sometimes include a post office or a hotel, but always a store. These stores are the symbol of southern Africa and can be found everywhere. They are small, single-story buildings divided into a grocery, a butcher, and a liquor store. However, they can also sell everything from clothes to cosmetics. For people who grew up in southern Africa, many of their childhood memories center around the store, where their parents might stop for a drink or collect their mail. The store would temporarily transport them back to England, the distant home for which they felt a persistent longing.
The store is a symbol of connection between the isolated white families distributed across southern Africa. It is a reminder of England and the “civilized,” comfortable, consumer-based lifestyle that is a marked contrast from rural life in Africa.
This chapter jumps back in time to Mary’s childhood. Mary thinks of England as “home” even though she has never seen it—even her parents were born in South Africa. The store is an especially important part of Mary’s childhood. She would spend hours there, although Mary’s mother banned her from playing with the daughter of the store owner because the family was Greek.
The narrator points out that there is something false about this connection to England, though. While white settlers have a sentimental attachment to their country of origin, many—like Mary and her parents—have never even seen it. There is thus a lack of authenticity to their connection to England just as there is a lack of authenticity to the store itself. The store is a reminder that white people are a forced, artificial presence in Africa.
The store is also where Mary’s father buys alcohol. Mary’s mother makes a big show of complaining that her husband spends all their money on drink, leaving her to raise three children on nothing. Mary’s father does not drink himself to “brutality,” but is a rather happy drunk. He is a railway worker who is deferential to petty officials and rude to native people. Every month, Mary’s parents fight over the bills. Her older brother and sister die of dysentery in the same year, and this briefly brings her parents together; Mary thinks of this period of grief as “the happiest time of her childhood.” The family moves three times, but in Mary’s memory each place is exactly the same. Mary is sent to boarding school, where she’s happy to be away from her family, and eventually decides to leave home at 16. She finds a job as a typist in a small town, and by 20 has made a close group of friends and “a niche in the life of the town.”
Mary’s childhood, and particularly the joy she feels in the period following the deaths of her siblings, highlights the perversion that characterizes her life and personality. While family is usually associated with intimacy, comfort, and happiness, Mary’s family is a source of misery, and she only finds happiness once she has achieved independence from her parents. This perverse sense of happiness is also significant due to the way in which it challenges gender norms. As a woman, Mary is expected to find fulfillment in domesticity, nurture, and care; instead, she is only happy when she breaks free of her family and lives an independent life.
Shortly after Mary leaves home, Mary’s mother dies and Mary’s father is transferred 500 miles away. Mary feels relief and no sympathy for her father, who she imagines cannot suffer because he is a man. She continues to enjoy her “comfortable, carefree existence as a single woman,” unaware of how unusual and privileged a position this is in comparison to the experiences of women all over the world. When Mary is 25, her father dies, leaving her with no connection to her childhood and a sense of total happiness and freedom. Mary’s happiness is the most extraordinary thing about her; she is somewhat pretty, though rather thin and plain.
This passage emphasizes the extent to which Mary defies gender norms. In opposition to the expectations of how women should feel and behave, Mary seems to have little sympathy for others and finds happiness only in independence and freedom. While on the one hand her reaction to her mother’s death may appear cold, can we blame Mary for wanting the life of independence that is bestowed on men but withheld from women in this era?
By 30 little in Mary’s life has changed, and she feels no older than 16. She works as her employer’s personal secretary and earns enough money to get her own apartment. However, she chooses to remain living in a girls’ club designed for women who make little money, because it reminds her of boarding school and because she is respected there. Mary is older than the other women, and stays at an aloof distance from their “intimacies” and dramas. She holds a similar position of authority in her office, simply because she’s been there so long. Looking back, this period of time can be seen as a “Golden Age” for women that has now disappeared. Each day, Mary arrives at the office on time, goes home to the club for lunch, and works for two hours in the afternoon before being taken out by various male friends for tennis, hockey, or a swim. At night she goes to dance at parties or to the movies.
Mary’s time living at the club and working at the office is presented as a kind of paradise. She has few serious obligations and the freedom to live her life on her own terms. Note that this contrasts to how society expects women to view this period of their lives. During this era, the time before a woman gets married is generally seen as a kind of purgatory; although she might find some degree of happiness through her youth, beauty, and friendships, this is merely a precursor to the true happiness and fulfillment supposed to be found in marriage and child-raising. Mary’s desire to linger in this period of purgatory thus challenges the logic of the society in which she lives.
As the years pass, Mary’s friends get married and their children grow older. Mary remains single, healthy, happy, and carefree. She continues to dress in “little-girl fashion.” Other people think she is missing the most important aspects of life, but the narrator notes that some people simply do not want these things. Mary’s impression of marriage and childbearing is poisoned by her own unhappy family, and she is repulsed by sex as a result of unspecified incidents that took place in her childhood home. Occasionally Mary wonders if there will ever be more to her life, and she craves this greater sense of meaning, but these moments always pass. She is not sensitive to “atmosphere” and thus does not notice the general pressure that compels all women to marry—until one day it’s shoved rudely in her face.
The narrator presents two different ways in which to interpret Mary’s resistance to marriage. On one hand, Mary is happy and healthy; she enjoys her life and has no desire to share it with someone else, and is particularly resistant to sex. Why would it make sense, then, for her to get married? On the other hand, Mary’s insistence on dressing in “little-girl fashion” suggests there may be something pathological (unhealthy) about her apparent refusal to move on to the next stage of her life. Is she in denial about the passage of time, and, if so, does this mean her happiness is doomed to end regardless?
One day Mary is sitting alone on the veranda of her married friend’s home when she overhears two of her friends gossiping disapprovingly about her girlish lifestyle and the fact that she isn’t married. They insult her appearance and suggest that she will never marry. Mary is horrified; she did not know her friends thought this, and did not recognize herself in their description.
This passage shows that Mary’s supposed friends are not compassionate and supportive, but rather judgmental and malicious. This highlights Mary’s isolation and suggests that her existence as a single, independent woman cannot last forever. Without the support of her group of friends, Mary will be truly alone.
Mary immediately begins to dress differently and feels newly “unconformable” around men. She begins looking for a husband, and finds a possible candidate in a 55-year-old widower. They get engaged, but when he attempts to have sex with her, Mary is overcome by a “violent revulsion” and runs home to the girls’ club. She begins to avoid men over 30; although she is also older than 30, she still thinks of herself as a little girl. News of how she ran away from her fiancée spreads among Mary’s social group, who laugh scornfully at her behavior. They gossip about how bad she looked and muse that she must be having a nervous breakdown.
The fact that Mary is over 30 but still thinks of herself as a little girl is evidence that she suffers from a sense of dysphoria and alienation from herself. This passage thus explores the question of whether Mary’s embrace of singlehood is perfectly understandable, or whether it in fact speaks to hidden trauma lying beneath the surface of her carefree existence.
Mary is crushed by the way her image of herself has been destroyed, and she feels conscious that people look at her pityingly. It’s at this time that she meets Dick. He “might have been anybody,” or at least anyone who would treat her as if she was “wonderful and unique.” Dick is visiting town from his farm; a friend persuaded him to stay the night and go to the cinema. Dick dislikes being in town and longs to be back on the farm. He especially hates the cinema, and the feeling of being squished into the auditorium with so many other people.
From the start, it’s clear that Dick and Mary’s relationship is not one of great romance or passion. It’s also worth noting that Dick dislikes urban life and feels uncomfortable in crowds, whereas this is the setting in which Mary usually thrives.
At the cinema that night, Dick looks down the row of seats, notices Mary, and asks who she is. After his friend replies simply with “Mary,” Dick forgets about her, until later on that night when he dreams about her, the first time in years he has dreamed about a woman. Since starting work on the farm 5 years ago, Dick has given up drinking, cigars, and all luxuries. He hopes to get married and have children, but feels it would be impossible to ask a woman to share his frugal, isolated life. He dreams of being able to “spoil” a wife with a large, elegant house. However, he has been unlucky in farming, so much so that other farmers nickname him “Jonah.”
The description of Dick and Mary’s initial meeting highlights points of similarity between their characters, as well as some stark differences. Both Dick and Mary crave independence—Dick through his isolated life on the farm, and Mary through her life as a single woman in the town. Yet Dick dreams of having children and being able to “spoil” his wife, while Mary prefers to have a relatively simple existence and one that is not encumbered by familial attachment or responsibility. Mary’s adulthood also has been characterized by good fortune and happiness, whereas Dick is so unlucky he is nicknamed “Jonah,” a sailors’ term for someone who brings bad luck to a ship.
Dick is wary of thinking about women, but cannot get Mary out of his mind. A month after the cinema trip, he comes back to town and sets off in search of her. When he arrives at her building, he doesn’t recognize her; she’s wearing trousers, which in Dick’s eyes eradicate any femaleness about her. Mary asks him if he’s looking for her, and Dick is overcome with embarrassment. He manages to ask her if she wants to go for a drive, and as they drive along he realizes that he really does like her. Back on the farm, however, Dick worries about the prospect of getting married, which he cannot afford. Over the next few months, he labors so strenuously that he grows exhausted and thin. He resolves to return to town with a “defeated little smile.”
Both Dick and Mary are suspicious of romance and sexuality. To some extent, this reflects the conservative values of the era, which held sexual desire to be destructive and dangerous. However, both Dick and Mary’s aversion to sex goes beyond the norms of the society in which they live (and also in neither of them is it rooted in conservatism or religiosity). Dick and Mary also find comfort and stability in their independence. For Dick, this is due to his poverty, and for Mary, it is due to the freedom she is afforded as a single woman, which will be taken away once she marries.
Meanwhile, Mary has been tormented by Dick’s apparent lack of interest in her, thinking it proves that the cruel rumors about her are correct. She stays awake all night waiting for him to call, and one morning her boss tells her to take time off until she’s feeling better. Mary goes home glumly, trying unsuccessfully to convince herself that she was not actually interested in Dick. Eventually she gives up hope and goes to the doctor, who tells her she must take a holiday immediately to avoid having a total nervous breakdown. A few weeks after this, Dick appears at Mary’s door. She forces herself to restrain her emotions and behave in a “calm, maternal” way. He proposes to her in an adoring, bashful fashion, and they get married two weeks later. Dick confesses that he’s too poor to give them a honeymoon, but this doesn’t upset Mary—secretly, she’s relieved.
Mary’s hope of marrying Dick does not emerge from attraction to Dick, but rather paranoia resulting from the cruel rumors spread about her. In fact, Mary’s desire to marry Dick seems to have almost nothing to do with Dick himself. She does not feel especially drawn to him as a person nor to the lifestyle of a married woman, a fact demonstrated by her relief at not having a honeymoon. From the very beginning of their marriage, Mary knows she must play the role of a “calm, maternal” woman, a performance that masks her true feelings and obscures her actual personality.