Although Ross does not explicitly condone or criticize the traditional gender roles that define his characters’ lives, the tension between male and female perspectives is a central source of conflict in the story. Ann feels that as a woman, she should be grateful and happy just to have a kind husband who provides for her material needs. She feels guilty for wanting a more varied, entertaining existence. John, for his part, does not understand Ann as an individual. Instead, he treats her the way he imagines that a woman would like to be treated. He believes that she will be happy if he is a hard-working breadwinner and can eventually buy her nice things, despite Ann expressing that she would rather enjoy their youth together.
The tension between the way Ann is supposed to act as farmer’s wife and the way she actually feels causes her to bottle up her feelings of frustration and resentment. John’s traditional understanding of gender roles prevents him from seeing how unhappy his wife has become. When Ann turns to a physical relationship with Steven, she is seeking comfort by trying on a different version of stereotypical femininity and embracing a different version of stereotypical masculinity—the confident, handsome man instead of the hardworking, loyal one. Instead of acting like a perfect, self-sacrificing wife, she temporarily acts like a seductive sexual object. Unfortunately, she does not feel fully satisfied in either role, or with either man. In the end, the strict gender roles which John and Ann feel they must fulfill are what prevents them from communicating effectively to resolve their differences.
Men and Women ThemeTracker
Men and Women Quotes in The Painted Door
“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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
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...
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.”
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.
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.
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.