Considering making a major life change to turn dreams of the future into reality may require sacrifices, a degree of independence which might lead to isolation, and a certain amount of time. Often a fear of sacrifice, isolation, and the passage of time lead individuals to ignore their dreams and pursue a more attainable route – one that is guaranteed and requires less risk. In Sinclair Ross’ “The Painted Door,” the protagonist Ann views sacrifice as a necessary evil to be loyal to her husband John, one that steers her away from trying to be so. She feels isolated and disconnected from others and her husband, as represented by the setting: barren and desolate. She fears this isolation is waning the time of her youth, symbolic of the winter season the story takes place in, where the earth dies and becomes cold.
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Ann desires for an emotional connection with John, one where she feels youthful and alive, one that eases her fear of time leading to meaningless old age and death. John envisions a different future, where he sees Ann and himself living their old age with wealth and health. Steven, in contrast, disregards the consequences the future holds and focusses on the present, particularly with Ann. Through Ann’s fear of sacrifice, isolation, and the inevitable passage of time, she is shelled by her own artillery in the irony of war between her desire to form an emotional connection with John and the dread of sacrifice, between her desire for momentary escape from isolation and infidelity, and between her wanting to preserve her past in the form of youth and simultaneously fearing what the future holds. Adultery is the ultimate attainable act she chooses to undergo, one where not sacrificing her desires in isolation to produce loyalty is rewarding for a short period of time but proves to be destructive for her in the end.
Maintaining a connection with another person in Ann’s isolated world requires extreme sacrifice. Ann and John live in a very remote and physical environment, one that is “strangely alien to life” and “intensified a sense of isolation.” For John to care for his aging father and make sure Ann has company, he must walk many miles in a raging snowstorm, seventeen to his father’s shed, and an extra two to tell Steven to drop by and see Ann. It is winter, not the time to paint, and yet Ann, desperate to fill the void of isolation in her life, busies herself by painting the door when John is gone. The paint is a symbol of Ann’s attempt to brighten up her otherwise lonely, dull life. It is a symbol of the loneliness and isolation Ann feels when her husband leaves her alone in the farm shed. It is this isolation and lack of excitement in Ann’s life that nurtures her appeal to novelty in the form of Steven. By turning to a physical relationship with Steven, she is donning a different version of stereotypical femininity and embracing a new version of stereotypical masculinity.
Steven represents the daring, confident man, and John, the loyal, hard-working man. Ann, instead of playing the self-sacrificing wife, acts temporarily as a seductress and sexual object. She takes on a new kind of female role in response to a new kind of masculinity. In the midst of seeking excitement with Steven, Ann loses the security of her marriage. She loses her rationality, and she loses her ideal future. The paint on the door represents Ann’s dedication and care for her idea of the life she wants with John. By covering the door with a blanket, she “smudges the paint,” showing that Steven’s presence has caused her to forget what is most important to her – her marriage with John. The paint was a symbol of the reality of her life, and the blanket shows she is applying fabricated layers to her existence, succumbing to distractions (Steven) in hopes of forgetting the excruciating isolation she feels. She links her isolation to John, associating his “helpless” attitude to her gloominess, his “humility” to her unexciting days. By marrying her isolation to John, she forgets that she is, in fact, his actual wife, and isolation is merely a feeling she is forcefully associating with John. But, with Steven comes a new feeling. Spending the night alone causes Ann to appeal to a sense of novelty.
The prospect of “adventure” and “responsibility” of the farm shed while John was away was enough to “stimulate” her, enough that she fails to think rationally about the implications of such responsibility, and the significance of being John’s wife in her role of not letting his sacrifices to go to waste, even if it requires her to offer a sacrifice of her own. What Ann ultimately desires is an emotional connection to rid her of the feeling of loneliness; yet, she does not realize that this is a long-term goal, one that Steven cannot fulfill with his offering of momentary pleasure. In the end Ross suggests that, when Ann finds John after he offers the ultimate expense – his life, there is no loyalty without sacrifice, and that it is only Ann’s wishful thinking that she may pursue a happy future with John as a result of infidelity.
Isolation, while allowing Ann to succumb to her desires, also forces her to peel away the comfort of company and live with her vulnerabilities. When Ann is alone, she does not know what to do with herself. She does not know how to deal with her thoughts and her inner turmoil, as represented by the snowstorm. Ross personifies the storm as it “fled keening past the house: a wail through the eaves.” It is a physical depiction of the passion, emotion, and crisis in Ann’s life. Ann is always turning to physical manifestations of her emotions, rather than dealing with them in her own mind. She describes the cold with snake-like imagery and describes the fire as a source of security. The cold is her enemy. It brings a certain silence and feeling of isolation, which the fire, her security, “crackled at.” However, after she sleeps with John and her desire for connection is momentarily fulfilled, the cold and the fire switch roles. The fire becomes the snake, again a physical embodiment of Ann’s emotions, a representation of her inability to recognize and deal with her own feelings. In her distress, she notes that “the whips of light still flicked and coiled, but now suddenly they were the swift little snakes that this afternoon she had watched twist and shiver across the snow.”
The cold now represents her sense of security, and she feels the need to punish herself and “suffer and atone.” She crosses to where the “draft was bitter, and for a long time [she] stood unflinching on the icy floor.” Fire brings warmth and illumination, but it also brings pain and death. The fire slowly goes from Ann’s source of warmth to symbolizing her giving in to her temptations. The cold represents her loneliness and lack of activity. She sees the cold storm as her enemy in the beginning due to her desire to ignore and ‘cover’ her isolation (by painting the door), but then deals with it at the end when she wants to “punish herself.” She sees facing her reality as a punishment and seeking distractions as a form of comfort. However, escapism does not protect her from reality, and she must either deal with her emotions or deal with the consequences of not doing so. She ultimately falls into the latter, and when she does realize the nature of her reality, it is too late to fix it. She understands only after she sleeps with Steven what can truly rid her of the feeling of isolation – John, and working to “make amends” with him. It is this lack of understanding in the beginning that causes her to become irrational and impulsive in her decisions. Ironically, the driving cause of her infidelity – the feeling of isolation – only ends up segregating her further from both her own moral conscience and from John.
Ann feels trapped in the passage of time, wanting both to guarantee her youth and old age at the same time, and she fleetingly tries her best to control it. She basks in any remnants of youth, whether it be of her surroundings, of Steven’s, or of herself. She paints the old doorframe to make it new, and she sleeps with the “still-boyish” Steven to feel young and free again. Yet, she knows the paint will eventually crack and peel, and she knows the pleasure with Steven is only momentary. This shows her acute awareness of the gradual passing of time, as well as the nature of it: agonizing and torturous. It is always either moving too slowly or too quickly for her. She is constantly waiting for the next season, constantly waiting for the next year to pay off a little more of the farm shed’s mortgage, and constantly waiting for the time she can enjoy with John. Paradoxically, Ann eagerly awaits the arrival of spring while simultaneously wishing to slow down the process of aging. John, in contrast, holds a more optimistic view of the passage of time. He does not fear the diminishing of his youth, but wants to secure his and Ann’s stability in their declining years. This shows that the perception of time is subjective. For John, time is ticking away to something better, for Ann, to old age and death. Both Ann and John are focussed so much on the future, each in their own way, that they fail to live life as it is in the present. They fear the reality of life, as represented by the storm: unpromising, unravelling, and unrelenting. Steven, in contrast, lives fully in the present. As selfish and immoral this may be, he is unconcerned with the consequences the future holds and only wishes to enjoy a night next to Ann. Ann does realize the symbolic nature of Steven; he represents momentary pleasure, without depth nor future. When he is sleeping, she realizes that he was “revealed in his entirety – all there ever was or ever could be.” She thinks, “John was the man. With him lay all the future.” Yet that future, when she finds John dead, ceases to exist. The tragedy portrayed in the story shows the absurd uncertainty of time, and how visions set for the future can disappear in an instant. Ann is in an awkward position of trying to preserve the past and future simultaneously, forgetting that the past does not affect the future but the present does. As seen through John and Ann, relying on the possibility of future happiness may only end in disappointment, and it is through living in the present that they could have found joy, no matter how bleak and brutal it may seem.
In “The Painted Door,” Ross explores the themes of sacrifice, isolation, and time by the roles they play in the pursuit of desire as an end-goal for the future. John makes continual sacrifices for what he thinks will be the best for Ann. He walks an extra two miles in the snowstorm to tell Steven to drop by their shed, and his death may be viewed as a sacrifice of his life. In contrast, Ann is afraid of sacrifice, the ‘necessary evil’ required for loyalty that becomes obligatory on her due to her role as a wife. The gradual transition of Ann’s psyche from fear and denial to hope and acceptance can be seen through the usage of the cold as a metaphor for isolation and the fire as a metaphor for her temptations. The cold formerly served as a harsh reality she wished to ignore, but then chose to acknowledge and fix. The fire, initially serving as a source of warmth and security – a temporary solution to her problems, becomes “snake-like,” seeming like a solution at first but then ultimately adding fuel to her situation. Ross also depicts the nature of time as absurd; time becomes both the motivation and the result for Ann, the means and the end. She wants to enjoy her youth before she turns old, not realizing that enjoyment is not definite but can be pursued always, even in the future.
Both Ann and John are obsessed with the idea of their future, constantly working towards it and neglecting the present moment; however, while John offers sacrifices to build their future, Ann resorts to wishful thinking and no work to achieve what she wants. That future she thinks as guaranteed ironically demonstrates the futility of her setting dreams without sacrificing any blood, sweat, or tears. In the end, contrary to what Ann thinks when she wants to rid her isolation, personal connections are revealed to be just as subjective and fleeting. No matter how the strong the connection between two people, life and death occur in solitude. Both Ann and John fail to realize this, focussing on their future together rather than their time together, for the future is always distant and the present is always passing.