Prompt: The ways in which individuals pursue or compromise happiness.
Text: The Painted Door
Form: Critical essay
One can never truly know what it is that makes them happy. Happiness is a gamble, one that asks for a temporary compromise of one’s security in the hopes of creating something better for oneself. However, in order for this choice to be made effectively and truthfully, one must decide that they are unhappy, before they compromise their security. When one makes a risk in a moment of weakness rather than in a moment of true unhappiness, compromising their security prematurely out of false duress, the likelihood of that risk becoming a foil compounds tenfold. In Sinclair Ross’ short story “The Painted Door”, the dangers of prematurely compromising one’s security–in the pursuit of happiness–during moments of weakness are illustrated through the character of Ann, and how the predictable drab of her life, caused her a subconscious struggle to stay loyal to her husband John, and her eventual failure to overcome these struggles. Ann finds security in John, despite him making their life rigid, predictable, and unfulfilling. However, the thought of John never returning home from the snowstorm gave way to disillusionment with their relationship, prematurely stripping away her security, and causing her to realize how unhappy she is, leaving her vulnerable to the temptation of risk. That temptation is fulfilled by Steven, who represents everything that Ann, in that moment of weakness, thinks will make her happy. When she realizes that is not the case however, and attempts to restore the security that she found in John, it is too late, and the consequences of her actions are absolute in their devastation.
At the beginning of the story, Ann is in a state of lull married to her husband, John, who is routine and non exciting, conforming to the conventional ideals of husband and wife that has kept them on the same track for over 7 years, a disposition that has slowly chipped away at Ann’s happiness. When John finally leaves, Ann begins to waver subconsciously the true facility of their relationship, and slowly the foundations of her doubts enshroud her mind: “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 “. These doubts arise from the void of security that is brought into Ann’s life at that moment. Ann subconsciously has always wanted change, something more and something better, but she is unable to fully accept her unhappiness due to the fact that she knows nothing else aside from John’s company and protection. Ann attempts to dismiss her doubts within her mind “‘I mustn’t’, she said aloud again. ‘I married him–and he’s a good man. I mustn’t keep on this way… “ Her justification of her marrying him demonstrates her inability to comprehend a life beyond the man she married, and thus any faults within that man are to be forgiven for the sake of maintaining her happiness and content with him. When one begins to feel a depreciating degree of content toward something that had once fulfilled them for a long time, they will often not address it as a need to take a risk or jump-start their pursuit of happiness, instead they will rationalize it in their head and wait for something to change, as the doubt and uncertainty fester subconsciously. Ann does this initially by keeping herself busy, she does some cleaning, prepares some cooking, begins to paint their door, and even endeavors to look after the stable. However, when Ann is unable to keep these doubts at bay effectively, despite her attempts to convince herself otherwise: “Not that she meant or believed her words. It was just an effort to convince herself that she did have a grievance, to justify her rebellious thoughts, to prove John responsible for her unhappiness.” Ann knows deep down that she yearns for something beyond that lonely farmstead, something beyond the rigidity of John’s courtship and their simple cycle of life. But Ann also knows that with John, there is security and certainty, and thus she chooses to never confront her discontent with John consciously, choosing instead to bottle it up inside, out of sight.
When John leaves to venture off into the worst snowstorm that they had ever seen to visit her father, he takes the first risk. But it is not his own security that John is putting on the line — he has certainty that he will return safely, as he always has — rather it is Ann’s security that is compromised by his decision: “No matter who it stormed. Twice a week before we were married I never missed and there were bad blizzards that winter two.” John attempts to assure Ann of his safety, however, it is not his safety that Ann is truly worried about. Rather, it is what will happened to her once she leaves. When one is happy, one has a degree of security and certainty, however, when that security is removed, the happiness that provides it often comes next. John is secure of Ann’s love: “Then assured by her affection, he had relaxed against it gratefully, unsuspecting it might ever be less constant than his own.” This security in John is ironic, as by his leaving, Ann comes to realize how little she has to herself. She realizes how much she relies on John, and how unfulfilling their life has been, which creates within her a questioning of her happiness. As those earlier doubts mentioned in the paragraph above began to fester in her mind, they were akin to maggots, feasting on her security until they bloom into their final form: betrayal. Ann loses her security before she truly decides that she is happy. She grows uncertain that John will return, and when those thoughts grow ever nearer to the front of her mind, Steven arrives, and pushes those thoughts up and through Ann, convincing her that he will be her only companion for the night. This newfound state of being — one not of loneliness or of confinement to John — but of one where she is free from the limits of both. Ann, as it states notes “There was something strange, almost terrifying about this Steven… strangest of all was the familiarity… It was less Steven himself that she felt than his inevitability.” meaning that Steven’s very presence shifts Ann’s perspective, less like a function being added and more like a weight that has been lifted. Steven serves as the risk that Ann can take. The loss of security has opened doors for Ann, and Ann sees in Steven the door to happiness, to a few moments where she is no longer confined to John and his ritualistic ideals that have kept her trapped in that farmstead. This is Ann in her moment of weakness.
In order to make truly impactful positive steps in the pursuit of happiness, one must first decide that they are unhappy before they chose to compromise their security. When one is in a situation where their security is lost prematurely, they will often perceive it falsely as a loss of happiness, and they may force themselves to make an unnecessary risk. Steven breaks Ann down with his mere presence, to the point where Ann uses Steven as a way to quell and silence her doubts with certainty. “‘But he always came,’ she persisted… There was a never a storm–’ ‘Never a storm like this one’”.The words would seem infinitely more believable when they came from him. It was at this point, after Steven had broken down her security and defenses, that she had decided her fate. It is only at this point, when Ann is vulnerable and devoid of security, does Ann takes the risk, sleeping with Steven, and betraying her faithful John. When they are finished, Ann’s security is not restored, and she comes to realize that there is no happiness to be found in Steven. Ann begins to dread John’s return, seeing shadows in the night she thinks are John. “Her imagination, distorted to a nightmare by the illogical and unadmitted dread of his return.” Ann has destroyed any sense of security that John had provided, and now, in the middle of the night when Steven is no longer there for her, seemingly an empty shell of the supernatural creature she had encountered earlier, she is left devoid of security, fearful, guilty, and infinitely regretful. It was in this moment that Ann attempted to rebuild the thoughts that she so subconsciously desired to destroy. “It was hard now, to understand how she could have so deceived herself… John always came, There could never be a storm to stop him. He was strong, inured to the cold… While there was still time, she must waken Steven and hurry him away.” And indeed, John did come. And John was inured to the cold. John had returned home, for he had security and certainty within himself, but when he encountered that Ann had betrayed her trust, and everything he had ever given and thought and hoped for them vanished, he had neglected to face Ann. John chose instead to die in the cold embrace of the heavy snowstorms that he had contended with for years. At this point, Ann had lost both her security and her happiness, and had gotten nothing in return. When she realized her mistake, she was overtaken with immediate regret, a regret that would chanel no help into the impossible reconciliation of her mistakes, all because she took a risk, during a moment of weakness.
Ann may not have been happy with her life with John, but that was not a decision she had come to consciously, and yet, the premature loss of security made her believe that she had to take a risk to maintain her happiness, and that risk lead to her demise and the destruction of everything she had known — both her security and her happiness– leaving her with no escape or reconciliation. Happiness is a risk. One can never know what it is that will make them happy. But happiness is a calculated risk, and the decision to take that risk must be made voluntarily, and with the knowledge that the security of the life they know will be on the line, lest one gambles away the joys of life, and the drowns out the light of what could have been.