James Sinclair Ross was a Canadian banker as well as an author. He was most well-known for his short stories set on the Canadian prairies. In Ross’ short story The Painted Door, Ann and her husband John live on a farm in Saskatchewan in the 1800s. While a snowstorm is approaching, John leaves for his father’s farm to help him look after the chores, leaving Ann by herself in the storm. The theme of The Painted Door is isolation leads to irrationality and misery. This can be seen in the characterization of Ann throughout the story, the isolated setting of their farm, and the symbolism of the storm.
Throughout The Painted Door Ann struggles with an inner conflict as a result of her feelings of isolation. These emotions are not only present because of the isolated setting in which the story takes place, but also due to the loneliness caused by the distance between her and John in their marriage. John focuses on his work far too much for her liking and their communication skills have become less than satisfactory. As she looks out at the land she begins to feel lonely, and those emotions only increase as John leaves her alone to battle her conscience when he travels to his father’s farm.
When Steven, John’s close friend, arrives to play cards and to keep her company, Ann begins to compare him to John to determine the better man. Ann thinks about Steven as she tends to the fire and makes observations such as, “His hair was dark and trim, his young lips curved soft and full. While John, she made the comparison swiftly, was thick-set, heavy-jowled, and stooped. (page 204)” Her comparisons of the two men in a back and forth fashion effectively display how conflicted Ann is as she is caught in a battle between her mind and her heart.
Her descriptions of Steven make him appear to be more attractive and a gentleman, while John is the man she married, but has had trouble communicating with. As Ann compares the two men, she uses Steven’s positive attributes and John’s flaws to convince herself that Steven is a better man. Her reasoning leads to her irrational choice to cheat on John with Steven, which can be seen as a reason for John’s death when he left the house during the storm with no intention of returning after catching the two of them.
Ann’s isolation led to her making an irrational decision that ruined her marriage and will cause her to be even more lonely and miserable without John, the man she loves. The setting of The Painted Door is described in such a way that it enhances the feelings of isolation and misery in the story. Certain imagery is used to create vivid pictures in the reader’s mind to inspire emotions of loneliness. The setting is often described as very cold, or as barren and empty. “The sun was risen above the frost mists now, so keen and hard a glitter on the snow that instead of warmth its rays seemed shedding cold (page 190)”.
In this section of the story, Ross uses words that symbolize happiness, such as “sun” and “warmth”, but certain words can be connected to isolation, such as “frost” and “cold. ” By relating both the Earth and the sky to such chilled words, the imagery leaves the reader feeling as though they are trapped along with Ann in her isolation. Another example of isolation in the setting is, “She shivered, but did not turn. In the clear, bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region alien to life. Even the distant farmsteads she could see serves only to intensify a sense of isolation (190)”.
This portrays the area that they live in as very empty since their nearest neighbours are miles across the snow, giving Ann no one to go to when she is alone. These feelings of isolation and misery are what are constantly weighing on Ann’s shoulders throughout the story and lead to her irrational thoughts and decisions later on, such as her choice to sleep with Steven. The snowstorm that occurs during The Painted Door gradually builds over the course of the story and can be seen as a symbol for Ann’s inner conflict.
The storm in the story is also Ann’s enemy in a person vs. nature conflict, separating her from her husband and isolating her from the rest of the world. The stormier it becomes, the more Ann becomes cut off from the outside world. The storm separates her from John for a long time and because of this, Ann considers things that she normally wouldn’t, such as having an affair with her husband’s best friend. These extreme conditions are the driving force behind Ann’s irrational thoughts. As the story progresses and she spends more time alone, Ann’s thoughts and worries begin to build up.
The way the storm is described in the story, the reader can infer that the same turmoil is also present in Ann’s mind. By describing the storm as “eventual fury”, “blustering and furious”, and “insane and dominant” these phrases can also be related to Ann’s ever changing thoughts about John. While the storm worsens, Ann becomes closer to committing her sin. As the storm reaches its peak, Ann gives in to her emotions and sleeps with Steven. “The storm wrenched at the walls as if to make them buckle in. So rigid and desperate were all her muscles set, withstanding, that the room around her seemed to swim and reel.
So rigid and strained that for relief at last, despite herself, she raised her head and met his eyes again. (page 209)” In the meantime, unknown to her, John is battling the storm to keep his promise to return to her. As Ann wakes up afterwards, the storm slowly dies down, leaving a path of regret, guilt, and misery behind it. The stormy, isolated conditions of the setting and in her mind are the driving force behind her irrational decision to sleep with Steven and the misery that followed her choice. Isolation can be the reasoning behind irrationality and misery, and in The Painted Door, there are no exceptions.
Ann’s inner conflict making her choose between her husband and Steven, the loneliness of the setting that seemed to trap her, and the storm that symbolized the thoughts and emotions inside of her were all forms of isolation that led Ann to irrational actions. Had she stopped to think about where her thoughts were going, perhaps Ann would not have let her isolation affect her rationality. Then John would still be alive and she would not feel the guilt, misery, and loneliness that followed her decision.
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