James is at a funeral that his wife, Maude, cannot attend because she has to watch their children and she doesn’t leave New York unless to go to Europe or on summer vacation. She certainly won’t leave for a funeral in Denver in the middle of winter. Ellen and Adelaide attend as well (out of a sense of duty), but their husbands, Mr. Jennings and Mr. Oswald, have stayed behind. After the funeral ends, James, Ellen, and Adelaide all wait for the lawyer to come read the will, at which point they’ll be able to go home on the night train.
The narrator begins the story in the middle of the action. It’s unclear whose funeral James, Ellen, and Adelaide have just attended. What’s clear is that the funeral doesn’t seem very important to any of them. Ellen and Adelaide are there only out of a sense of obligation. James’s wife, Maude, scoffs at the idea of inconveniencing herself to attend, and Ellen and Adelaide’s spouses have likewise chosen to stay home. This general unwillingness suggests that the funeral might be for someone relatively insignificant in their lives, certainly not someone worth traveling all the way to Denver for. It’s implied that James, Ellen, and Adelaide are related because they are involved in the will that the lawyer is coming to read, and rather than grieving, the three seem most concerned with attending to this business transaction so they can return home as quickly as possible, again revealing how much they don’t want to be there.
The siblings regard meeting with the lawyer, Mr. Frankland, as a formality, believing that their father, Mr. McPherson, can’t have left much behind for them to inherit after his lengthy and presumably costly illness. They quickly transition into a discussion about what to do with their now widowed mother, Mrs. McPherson. First, Ellen offers to take her, admitting that her husband’s salary is more than enough to cover expenses, though she also says that her offer depends on how much her inheritance will amount to. Next, Adelaide offers to take her in, immediately undermining her offer by saying she doubts her mother would want to live with her in Pittsburgh because she never liked the city.
The dialogue reveals that James, Ellen, and Adelaide are siblings and that it’s their father who has died, leaving them worried about their now widowed mother. Their expectation that there won’t be much to inherit is tinged with disappointment and, along with their general unwillingness to be there, reveals a sense that their father is useless to them. Both sisters make blatantly empty offers to take their mother in, as each immediately provides excuses as to why it wouldn’t work out. It’s obvious that neither wants to care for their mother, but what they do care about is maintaining appearances. They want to appear to be the concerned adult children who care for their widowed mother that society expects them to be.
James looks at both his sisters and asks how old their mother is. Ellen replies that she’s 50 and presumes she is worn out after caring for her husband through his illness. Then she suggests that their mother would be most comfortable with James because he has such a large house. Adelaide agrees, adding that she believes a woman is always better off with a son than living with a daughter’s husband. James admits that this idea has merit, but he says, “it depends,” and the sisters exchange knowing looks.
That James doesn’t even know his own mother’s age is another indication that he doesn’t care very much about her. The siblings continue to operate under the assumption that their mother is too old to care for herself. The sisters try to pawn her off on James, citing the resources he has, in this case his large house, that leave him better equipped to take her in. When James considers that their mother may in fact be better off with him, Ellen and Adelaide exchange knowing looks that suggest they suspected James assumed that the duty of caring for their mother would fall on the sisters. Additionally, they know that his wife Maude doesn’t want Mrs. McPherson in her home. Based on Maude’s failure to show up to the funeral, she doesn’t seem to care for Mrs. McPherson, though the story doesn’t reveal why.
Ellen suggests that if their mother stays with her, James could help out. James agrees and suggests that their mother could stay with either Ellen or Adelaide while he would pay her entire board. He asks how much that might cost, insisting that they arrange everything now. Ellen, with a furrowed brow, replies that everything is really expensive these days. She clarifies that she’d want James to cover only what their mother needs, and that she’s not looking to make a profit off him. Adelaide jumps in to remind her taking care of their mother is work, and that Ellen has a lot on her hands already, caring for her sickly children and her husband, Edward.
While James has the most resources to take care of their mother, both the house and the money to cover all her expenses, it’s clear that he is resistant to take on the traditionally female role of caretaker. He expects that this more labor- and emotionally- intensive duty will befall his sisters. James worries aloud about how much this will cost him, and Ellen assures him she’s not looking to make a profit. This assurance aligns with the fact that society undermines traditionally female work, especially the work involved in caring for a family, and fails to compensate them for this labor. Ellen already has a lot on her plate caring for her husband and her children, but as a woman she’s expected, and even feels obligated, to take on more. Additionally, the siblings continue to discuss the matter as if it’s primarily a business transaction, more worried about costs than they are about their mother, which reinforces that they view their mother as a burden, not a beloved and respected matriarch.
Now Adelaide again offers to take her mother in, saying that her house is big enough and that her husband would barely notice an increase in the household bills. The only noticeable expense would be the cost of providing clothes. Immediately, she backtracks, explaining that her husband would mind that expense. James insists that their mother must be well cared for and then asks how much the clothes would cost each year. Adelaide, faintly smiling, suggests that it would cost the same as his wife’s clothes do, but Ellen quickly interjects that this estimate is inaccurate because Maude is a high-society woman with more clothes than their mother would ever dream of having.
Adelaide’s offer and James’s insistence that their mother be well cared for are again facades, with the intention of making them appear generous and dutiful as society expects them to be. The sisters’ dig at Maude’s pricy vanity suggests that they disapprove of their brother’s wife. Adelaide’s faint smile and Ellen’s interjection reveal that the two are allies against their brother in this conflict.
James regards Ellen gratefully and asks her to make an estimate of how much board and clothes should amount to. Ellen rummages in her purse for a pen and paper, finding none, and James hands her an envelope and a pen. She scribbles calculations, estimating that food will be four dollars weekly, heat and light will add six each week, while clothes, carfare, and other small expenses will amount to $300 a year. James calculates that this adds up to around $600 a year and then asks Adelaide if her husband would contribute. Adelaide flushes before saying he probably wouldn’t unless absolutely necessary. James says he has enough money, but Adelaide says he doesn’t have much outside of his business and he has to look after his own parents. She can only give their mother a home.
The siblings continue to treat their mother’s well-being like a business transaction. James and Ellen make stingy calculations and it’s clear James doesn’t want to support his mother financially despite his repeated offers to do so. Realistically, however, he is the only sibling with the resources to support her. Like many women of the time, Ellen and Adelaide are financially dependent on their husbands, so their ability to provide for their mother is dependent on their husbands’ willingness to do so. Adelaide’s husband can’t provide financial support because he already supports his own parents, again suggesting that it’s a man’s responsibility to financially support his family. James’s resistance continues to reveal his lack of care for his mother.
Ellen insists that either she or Adelaide can take their mother in, and if James is willing to pay, he’ll be spared the effort of caring for her. She suggests that his wife, Maude, won’t agree to let her live with them. Adelaide wonders if their father might be passing down some money after all and if maybe the house and land could sell for a reasonable amount, leaving funds to care for their mother. The house is on a large piece of land that isn’t too far outside of Denver, with rural views of the Rocky Mountains and vast Colorado plain. James supposes that it should be worth at least $6,000 or $8,000.
Once again Ellen gives into both James’s and society’s expectation that women should take on the burden of caregiving while men provide financially. She brings up Maude’s unwillingness again, too, confirming a truth that the siblings all understand but leave unspoken: Maude has absolutely no interest or intention of letting her mother-in-law live in her home, perhaps because it would interrupt her high society lifestyle. The conversation becomes business-like again as the siblings hope that the land will free them from the financial burden that no one is willing to take on.
Adelaide interjects that she noticed her mother’s black funeral clothes were old—the same ones she has worn for as long as she can remember. Ellen notices that their mother has been upstairs for a while now, so she wants to go see if she needs anything. Adelaide convinces her not to, saying that she asked to be left alone to rest before the lawyer came. Silence fills the space between them until Ellen remarks that their mother is dealing with the death well. Adelaide says that, while their father meant well, their mother’s heart isn’t broken by his passing. Ellen says that their father always upheld his duties, but that neither their mother nor the three siblings really loved him very much.
When their business-like talk subsides, an awkward silence overtakes the siblings, revealing that they don’t have much to talk about with each other beyond these logistics. It’s increasingly clear that these siblings are not bonded by love but by obligation both to each other and their mother. Adelaide’s admission that their mother isn’t heartbroken over her husband’s death confirms that love didn’t play a large role in their family. Ellen agrees, noting that their father upheld his duty to provide for his children, but didn’t provide them with the foundation of love that children need and that family is expected to be built upon. Given this information, it's less surprising that the siblings have regarded their father’s death so cavalierly, more concerned with business than emotions.
James insists that they shouldn’t disrespect his memory with this kind of talk. Ellen changes the topic, noting that their mother didn’t remove her veil at the funeral. She suspects that, when they see her, their mother will have aged significantly after caring for their father for so long. Adelaide reminds her that a male nurse helped out towards the end, but Ellen insists that the long illness was likely a great burden on their mother, who was never very good at nursing and caring for others. Ellen gives her credit for upholding her duty through it all.
James doesn’t want to talk about the truth of their family, and instead wants to maintain the appearance that they are bonded by love, rather than admit that duty alone is what kept them together. However, his own continued reluctance to take any responsibility for his mother contradicts his efforts to keep up appearances. Because their mother hasn’t yet removed her mourning veil, they don’t truly know if she’s as bad off as they’re assuming. In part, Ellen assumes she will be run-down because she was never good at upholding her motherly, feminine duties of caring for others. The role of caretaker is one that never seemed to fit her, but that she took on out of duty because it’s what society expects of a woman. Ellen intuitively understands that the burden of assuming this role is likely exhausting for their mother. It’s the exact same role she and her siblings wish to avoid themselves.
James says that their mother has earned her rest, and he wonders how quickly they’ll be able to settle the affairs and get rid of the land and house in Denver. He supposes that there could be enough to cover their mother’s expenses once everything has been sold. Ellen looks out at the land, then exclaims that she always hated living there. Adelaide and James both agree, and the three siblings smile at each other grimly.
James is in a hurry to get rid of his childhood home and to profit off it as much as he can. He hopes that it can earn him enough money to pay for his mother’s expenses that he is so reluctant to take on. He sees both his family home and his own mother in terms of money, how much he’ll either make or lose, rather than regarding them with any sense of love or care. The siblings may be in such a hurry to get rid of the property because they all agree they hated growing up there. They didn’t receive much love and affection from their father, so growing up without a strong sense of emotional security and connection likely contributed to their desire to get away from home. Perhaps just like when they were children, the siblings are desperate to escape the ranch and head back east as soon as possible. The longer they stay, the more trapped they feel in this place that didn’t give them the love they needed.
Adelaide admits that none of them are very affectionate towards their mother and reflects that the entire family never showed much affection. Timidly, Ellen says that no one could be affectionate with their father. Adelaide exclaims that their mother lived a terrible life, but James defends both their mother and father, insisting that they admirably upheld their duties as parents. He tells his sisters that now it’s their turn to uphold their duties as children.
Once again, Ellen and Adelaide bring up the unspoken truths of their family. They know that their family was bonded by duty rather than love, and they know that commitment to duty trapped their mother and made her life terrible. James is still unwilling to confront this truth and falls back on the importance of upholding duty. James stands in as a symbol of their patriarchal society, wherein men make and enforce the rules of duty that ultimately limit and restrict women more than they do men. Ellen and Adelaide are more willing to confront the truth because it impacts them more than it does James, who has an interest in upholding the rules of duty so that his sisters are obligated to care for their mother, rather than him.
Mr. Frankland arrives, and Ellen stands up to retrieve their mother, Mrs. McPherson. She runs upstairs and knocks on her door. She lets her know that Mr. Frankland is downstairs. Mrs. McPherson replies that she knows he has arrived and tells Ellen to let him get started without her, since she already knows what’s in the will. Ellen, again with a furrowed brow, goes back downstairs to let the others know. Adelaide and James exchange glances as Mr. Frankland jumps right in to reading the will.
The siblings are eager to get started when the lawyer arrives, but in contrast, Mrs. McPherson appears totally unconcerned about the will . There’s a sense that Mrs. McPherson is not just hiding from her children, but that she’s asked to be left alone because she’s hiding something else from them. All three siblings are seemingly frustrated and concerned by this behavior.
Mr. Frankland apologizes for having missed the funeral. The will is brief—their father, Mr. Frankland explains, left what remained of the estate (after deducting their mother’s portion) to the three siblings in four equal parts. Two of those parts are left to James, while Ellen and Adelaide are to receive one each. The will states that the three children are responsible for caring for their mother, too. The estate includes the ranch, the house and all furniture, and $5000 in mining stocks. James notes that this is less than he’d expected, but Mr. Frankland clarifies that the will was made ten years ago and that the total value has likely gone up in that time. He also reminds them that their mother made money by taking in boarders, and James laments that this business will be over now.
The will explains that the siblings’ inheritance will be disbursed in “equal” parts, but James receives two portions compared to his sisters’ one each. The financial inequities between men and women in society are reflected here in their father’s will, which privileges a son over daughters. Additionally, the unequal distribution of the inheritance further reinforces the reality that James has more resources with which to care for his mother, which it turns out is a duty the will passes down to them. James is immediately disappointed with the total value of the inheritance, which increasingly appears to be his only concern here. When reminded of his mother’s small boarding enterprise, he doesn’t hesitate to assume that she’ll be going out of business now, as if he, a man, is making that decision for her.
Just then, Mrs. McPherson joins the group. She’s tall and draped in her black veil and funeral clothes. She tells Mr. Frankland she’s happy to hear him say that Mr. McPherson was of sound mind until the end because it’s true. She tells the group that she hasn’t come to hear the will because the will isn’t good anymore. The siblings and the lawyer all turn around in their chairs when they hear this. Mr. Frankland asks if there’s a new, updated will. Mother doesn’t know of any other will but explains that Mr. McPherson died without any property to his name.
Mrs. McPherson finally enters the story as an imposing and dark presence. She easily commands the entire room and her matter-of-fact announcement about the will shocks everyone. The woman that enters the room is clearly far from the weak and helpless woman her children described and expected.
Mr. Frankland is shocked and exclaims that Mr. McPherson had property four years ago. Mrs. McPherson agrees, but then she explains that he gave it to her three and a half years earlier as a way of keeping it safe from creditors in the wake of a financial panic. She shows them the deeds that verify Mr. McPherson handed his entire estate over to her. Mr. Frankland remembers that Mr. McPherson reached out to him for his opinion during the panic, and Mr. Frankland had thought the transfer was unnecessary.
Mr. Frankland had advised Mr. McPherson against transferring his property to his wife, a stand-in for the patriarchal society that keeps wealth away from women. Mr. McPherson’s decision, and now his death, leave Mrs. McPherson with a financial opportunity and autonomy that would otherwise be off limits to her.
James clears his throat. He tells his mother that this revelation complicates the siblings’ original plan to settle all the financial business that afternoon and then take her away with them on the night train. Ellen tells her mother that they can’t be away from home any longer than they already have been. Adelaide suggests that she give the property back to James or to all three of the siblings so that they can leave Denver. Mrs. McPherson asks, “Why should I?” In a persuasive tone, Ellen tells her mother she must be feeling bad and tired but reminds her that they originally expected to take her with them that night and that she had even packed up her things.
The siblings are immediately concerned only with their own needs and plans. They don’t’ care what their mother wants, or even care to learn more about the situation. They simply want their money as quickly as possible so they can get out of Colorado that night. Notably, Adelaide asks her mother to pass her property back into the hands of another man. She has again so deeply internalized the idea that wealth belongs to men that she doesn’t question robbing her mother of this wealth, nor does she even think to consider that it could be signed over to her or her sister. When Mrs. McPherson confidently rejects this suggestion, asking “Why should I?” the siblings deflect away from this question they can’t answer and instead focus on carrying out their self-interested plans.
Mrs. McPherson agrees that she has been packing. James concedes that it was safer for the property to be in her name but that now it’s easiest if she signs it over to him in a lump sum so that he can carry out the terms of the will. Mrs. McPherson tells them that their father is dead. Ellen tentatively responds that they know, and they know how she feels. Their mother declares that she is alive. Adelaide, impatient and a little annoyed, tells her that they understand it’s hard for her to talk business in the wake of her husband’s death, but that they told her as soon as they arrived that they wouldn’t be staying overnight.
It's unclear why Mrs. McPherson is packing now that she’s made it known that she won’t be leaving with her children as planned. The siblings, however, ignore her clear rejection and continue to try and force their plans on her. When she states the obvious—that her husband is dead and she is alive—she draws attention to the way in which the siblings’ discussions up until this point have completely disregarded their mother’s humanity and autonomy. They’ve been talking as if, like their now dead father, she has no say in what happens next nor any needs or wants of her own. They can’t conceive of a widowed woman who is independent and self-sufficient. When Adelaide reminds her mother that they are in a rush to leave that night, in other words to get away from her as soon as possible, she reveals a crack in the façade of care and love they’ve been attempting to hide behind this entire time.
James adds that the affairs must be settled right away. Mrs. McPherson replies that everything is already settled. James, now impatient himself, suggests that Mr. Frankland might be able to explain the situation more clearly to her. Mr. Frankland replies that he’s sure Mrs. McPherson understands, as she has always been an incredibly intelligent woman. Mrs. McPherson thanks him and then asks if he could help her children understand that the property belongs to her now. Mr. Frankland says that they all understand the basic facts, but that they all likewise expect her to consider the wishes outlined in Mr. McPherson’s will.
James condescends to his mother when he asks Mr. Frankland to explain the will, as if she’s incapable of understanding a simple business transaction. The idea that she wants to remain independent and in possession of her newfound wealth is so at odds with what her children, and society at large, expect of a woman that he thinks it reveals her stupidity rather than her intelligence. Mrs. McPherson shows them that she knows exactly what she’s doing when she responds to James with the same condescension. Although Mr. Frankland defends Mrs. McPherson’s intelligence, he too asks her to defer to her husband’s wishes left behind in his will, as if the now null-and-void wishes of a dead man hold more weight than the woman standing right in front of them.
Mrs. McPherson says she’d spent the last thirty years considering her husband’s wishes and it’s time for her to consider her own. She states that she upheld her duties as a wife from the very day they married. Mr. Frankland asks her to consider her children, but Mrs. McPherson tells him she has no children. Her son and daughters, though once her children, are now grown, married, and having children of their own. She says that she has already done her duty by them, and they’ve upheld their duty to her and will surely continue to do so. However, with a dramatic shift in tone, she tells them that they don’t have to uphold their duty to her anymore because she is tired of duty.
Her husband’s death frees Mrs. McPherson from the bonds of duty and obligation that tie women down to home and family. In other words, his death is the beginning of a new life for Mrs. McPherson, one in which she is free to fulfill her own wishes and develop her own sense of self. When Mrs. McPherson declares that she has no children, a shocking statement for a woman and mother to make, she pushes back against the way in which society reduces women to their motherhood alone. Even though her children are grown and don’t need her to care for them anymore, Mr. Frankland, and society at large, still see her as a mother who should be concerned with her children’s well-being first and foremost, rather than her own. She defiantly separates herself from this role in order to reclaim herself, to become her own independent person with an identity separate from motherhood. Her declaration that she is done with duty is simultaneously a declaration that she is done with her family. Her comments reveal an uncomfortable truth at odds with society’s portrayal of what ties a family together. Rather than love each other, the McPhersons simply felt obligated to each other, and each felt repressed by the weight of that obligation and the responsibilities that came with it. Just as her children yearned to escape the ranch and were reluctant to invite her into their homes, Mrs. McPherson is likewise desperate to finally escape duty. The difference is that she is unafraid to say this out loud now, as opposed to her children, who still try to keep up the façade of a loving and caring family.
The siblings and Mr. Frankland are shocked by her words. Mrs. McPherson continues, telling them that they have no idea how life on the ranch has been since they’ve left. She tells them she has spared them the trouble of dealing with her affairs, but she’ll tell them everything now. She explains that Mr. McPherson knew he didn’t have many years left to live when he signed the property over to her for safekeeping. She took over from that point on, hiring a nurse and doctor for Mr. McPherson and eventually turning the house into a miniature hospital where dozens of patients lived and worked, which turned a profit for Mrs. McPherson.
Mrs. McPherson highlights how clueless her children are about how her life has been in the past three years. It’s clear they’ve ignored her, busy back East with their own lives and happy to be away from the home they hated and the parents they felt little affection for. Mrs. McPherson knows this so well that she didn’t even bother to let them know what her life has been like. This only further reveals the inauthenticity of their claims that they care about, and want to provide for, their mother. When her husband gave her his property, she not only inherited his wealth, but used it to accumulate more. Wealth begets more wealth, and Mrs. McPherson was able to become an entrepreneur due to the financial opportunities her husband’s property afforded her. This is an opportunity most women of the time were denied, and one that begins to set Mrs. McPherson free. Cleverly, Mrs. McPherson takes the traditionally feminine role of caretaking—one that her children remember she was never good at—and outsources it, first to a male nurse, until later turning it into her own business. Rather than go unpaid for the labor of caretaking, as women are expected and forced to do, Mrs. McPherson turns this into an enterprise that earns her money. She’s the boss, not the caretaker.
Mrs. McPherson tells her children that she has tended a garden, cows, and chickens and that she has worked and slept outdoors. She declares that she is a stronger woman than ever before. She stands up straight and takes a deep, confident breath. She continues, explaining that Mr. McPherson’s property was worth $8,000 when he died, which would leave $4,000 for James and $2,000 each for Ellen and Adelaide. She tells them she’ll give them their money now, although suggests that the daughters take it in a yearly cash income because she thinks it’s important for a woman to have money of her own to spend as she likes. Both Adelaide and Ellen agree with her on this.
In stark contrast to the weak woman broken by grief that her children, and society, expect her to be, Mrs. McPherson is stronger than she has ever been. Freed from her role as wife and mother, and given the opportunity to work, she has proven herself capable of doing what any man can, and perhaps doing it even better, considering her business turned more profit than the ranch did alone when her husband was in charge. Her independence lends her a new air of confidence and strength. Mrs. McPherson knows that her children are more concerned with their inheritance—the business matters they’ve been so impatient to settle—than they are with mourning their father or caring for her. The wealth she’s been able to accrue as a property and business owner is enough to give them what they’re owed, the very last of her familial obligations. Mrs. McPherson understands the profound power of her financial independence, and that’s why she suggests that her daughters ensure their inheritance will be theirs alone to spend, rather than end up in the hands of their husbands as would be customary. Ellen and Adelaide agree despite the fact that they are unable to see the other ways in which they’ve tried to curtail their mother’s freedom due to their own internalized sexism.
James asks if she doesn’t need all this money for herself. She explains she doesn’t because she is going to keep the ranch, which has been making her $2,000 a year. She’s recently rented it to a friend, a female doctor, for the same amount. Mr. Frankland tells her that she has done remarkably well. Adelaide is stunned that she’ll have an income of $2,000 a year. Ellen shyly inquires if she’ll still come to live with her, and Mrs. McPherson thanks her before declining. Adelaide likewise offers her home, and Mrs. McPherson declines again. Finally, James makes the same offer, assuring her that his wife, Maude, would be happy to have her. Mrs. McPherson says she doubts that and declines.
Rather than sign the ranch over to James, Mrs. McPherson has rented it out to a female doctor. This way she’ll continue to profit while also empowering another businesswoman like her. This choice is significant because it represents a redistribution of wealth from men to women who are typically denied these opportunities. The siblings make their empty offers one final time, and Mrs. McPherson confidently declines, not just because she knows her children don’t truly want her, but more importantly because she wants them even less. She’s the one who is most excited to be rid of this unhappy family that was tied together by a repressive sense of duty and obligation for thirty years.
With real concern, Ellen asks what she is going to do in that case. Mrs. McPherson declares: “I’m going to do what I never did before! I’m going to live!” She takes strong and fast steps towards the window, draws the shades, and lets the bright Colorado sunshine fill the room before pulling off her black veil. Then she tells the siblings that she borrowed the veil because she didn’t want to hurt their feelings at the funeral. She unbuttons her black cloak and lets it fall to the floor. She stands in the sunlight, flushed and smiling, wearing a traveling suit.
Her husband’s death is what finally gives Mrs. McPherson a chance to live. It hasn’t devastated her the way her children, and society at large, expect, but instead opens a door to a new and invigorating freedom that her role and duty as a woman had kept tightly shut until now. When she opens the window, she fills the dark and funereal room with light, changing the tone of the room from one of mourning to one of celebration that matches the joy and excitement that this loss has counterintuitively afforded her. Pulling off the veil has the same effect. The fact that it was borrowed reveals that it was merely a costume, and she an actor, at her own husband’s funeral. It was a façade that allowed her to appear like the mourning and devastated widow society expects her to be. She didn’t want to tell her children it was borrowed because she wanted to uphold her duty to them to appear sad at their father’s funeral. When she sheds the black cloak, the final piece of her mourning costume, she reveals the traveling suit underneath. The suit represents a new self and new possibilities born of her husband’s death.
Mrs. McPherson tells the siblings she’ll explain her plan. She has $6,000 saved up, money she earned herself in three years of running the miniature hospital at the ranch. She has put $1,000 of it in savings to be used to deal with her body after her death, or for the cost of a nursing home if needed. She explains that this leaves “$5,000 to play with, and [she’s] going to play.” Adelaide and Ellen look stunned and try to interject, suggesting that she’s too old for such a plan. James frowns in a way that makes him look like his father.
Mrs. McPherson’s freedom is made possible by her newfound financial independence. Like most women of her time, she lived the majority of her life financially dependent upon her husband, a reality that kept her trapped on his ranch. When he signed his property over to her, he transferred to her a power typically reserved for men. Without anyone left to take care of, she’s able to spend her money on herself in pursuit of her own dreams and interests, which underscores that denying women financial independence is paramount to keeping them oppressed. Ellen and Adelaide have so internalized the financial limits placed upon women that they try to talk their mother out of her plan, even though they themselves must contend with the same oppression. James’s frown reminiscent of his father’s represents men at large, and their disapproval for a financially independent woman. A financially autonomous woman like Mrs. McPherson is dangerous because she can abandon her role as caretaker, a role upon which men and the nuclear family, the cornerstone of patriarchal and capitalist society, depend.
Mrs. McPherson says she knew her children wouldn’t understand, but she doesn’t care anymore. She declares that she gave them and their father 30 years of her life and that the next 30 will be for herself. Ellen anxiously asks if she’s sure she’s feeling well, and Mrs. McPherson laughs in her face. She says she has never been better and that her business is proof enough that she’s in good health. She enthusiastically reassures them that she is perfectly sane. She asks them to try and understand that she is a “Real Person” with her own interests and desires and with a whole half a lifetime left to live.
Ellen worrying about her mother’s sanity plays into the societal tendency to regard independent and assertive women as crazy, a tactic that intends to keep them oppressed within their expected role. Independent women are dangerous to a patriarchal society, and writing them off as crazy is a path to medicating the independence out of them or locking them away for good. That Ellen suggests this reveals the ways in which she’s internalized society’s expectations for women, even though these expectations are detrimental to her, too. Mrs. McPherson knows that her children, and society at large, view mothers one-dimensionally. She wants her children, and society, to understand that women are people, not machines who exist only to serve others. Instead, women should have the chance to live life in service of themselves and their passions.
Mrs. McPherson says that the first 20 years of her life didn’t count for much because she was still growing up, and the last 30 have been hard. She figures that James probably understands this best, but that they all know what she means. “Now,” she declares, “I’m free.” James asks where she intends to travel. She regards the group with a decided and peaceful attitude before she says she’ll be going to New Zealand, a place she has always wanted to see. From there, she says she’ll go to Australia, Tasmania, Madagascar, and Terra del Fuego. She says she’ll be gone for a significant amount of time. The siblings and their mother separate that night, the siblings heading east while their mother goes west.
Mrs. McPherson’s comments about her life show how women are robbed of any free and independent life of their own, immediately transitioning from the restrictions of childhood to the restrictive domestic expectations of marriage and family. She is confident in her plan, and her long-awaited autonomy fills her with a deep inner peace as she embarks on her journey towards self-actualization that women are otherwise denied. She tells her children that she is leaving them for a long period of time, to make up for the 30 years she lost being a mother to them. They abandoned her when they moved out, and now it’s her turn to be rid of them. Their opposing departures that night represent the final dissolution of this family that was bonded by the unbearable restrictions of duty rather than a fulfilling and meaningful love.