Sinclair Ross’s short story The Painted Door
was written in 1939, just after the worst years of the Great Depression. The overwhelming stress of that time period is reflected throughout Ross’s work, as it is set in a prairie farmhouse in the 1930s and features an overworked farmer and his unsatisfied wife, a common combination during the Great Depression.
John, a farmer, has been in awe of his wife Ann since the day they met. He’s even more in awe of the fact that she chose him and that he was lucky enough to marry her. With the constant looming stress of the Great Depression, John is working day in and day out to provide for his wife and keep her happy. He’s shy and reserved and has stumbled into a marriage with a beautiful woman who, for whatever reason, seems to love him back. He dedicates his entire life to providing for her. Meanwhile, Ann sits inside their isolated farmhouse and dreams of a different life with fancier things and a bigger home closer to town. John’s trying to save for a new home to satisfy his wife, but he can barely manage to pay down the mortgage on the house they already have.
There’s a storm brewing in the distance and John and Ann can’t agree on how to handle the impending blizzard. John wants to check on his father, but to do that, he has to leave immediately for a 17-mile walk that’s almost entirely uphill. With the blizzard becoming more dangerous, Ann begs John not to go. She doesn’t think it’s safe, but she also doesn’t want to tend for the animals on her own. John, always aiming to please his wife, reluctantly agrees to stay, but she ultimately allows him to go.
John offers to walk an extra two miles to their close friend Steven’s house so that he can spend the evening with Ann and keep her company. This is yet another example of John’s selflessness. He excitedly suggests that when he returns, the three can play a game of cards and spend time together.
While Ann helps John gear up for the snow, she comments on his unshaven face. She doesn’t think that she should be seeing Steven looking so unkempt, especially since Steven is sure to have a clean shaven face. This comparison is just the first of many that enter Ann’s mind throughout the course of the piece. Even though John says the beard will help him stay warm during his trek, she still favors Steven and wishes her husband would shave like him. John heads out on his journey.
Ann doesn’t believe that Steven will show up, so she begins to busy herself. She completes a list of chores around the house, such as repainting the front door. While she paints, her mind goes back to her frustration with her husband. She laments John’s stubborn nature and wishes that he hadn’t let himself go so much, but feels guilty, since the reason he has is because he’s too busy providing for her.
Ann also plans to brave the storm on her own in case Steven doesn’t show up. She puts on layers upon layers of clothes and prepares a plan for feeding the animals and bracing the winter weather, but as soon as she steps foot outside, she can’t handle the cold. Ann returns inside, visibly shaken up and cold. Steven then arrives. He immediately makes a condescending remark about how flustered she is.
As the night goes on, Ann subconsciously becomes more flirtatious with Steven. He’s the polar opposite of her husband. While John is endlessly kind, Steven teases her, and it brings out a side of her that she no longer knew was there. As the two flirt, Ann realizes she’s always been attracted to Steven and his boyish charm.
Ann grows upset with Steven when he makes a comment about how John must be staying at his father’s for the night. There’s no way he’d walk back in the storm just for Ann, he says, but she doesn’t agree—John has never left her alone for a night, and he’d absolutely brave the storm for her. But as the night goes on with no sign of John, the connection between the two grows, and they end up sleeping together.
Ann wakes up in a panic with immense guilt. She even pictures John over her in bed with Steven looking completely lost and confused. Ann tries to convince herself that there’s no way John will actually return tonight because, of course, he would wait out the storm at his father’s. She also decides in this moment that John is her one true love, and promises herself to recommit to him and begin to appreciate all that he does for her.
The next morning, John’s lifeless body is found just steps past their home. He walked home to spend the night with Ann after all. Ann is riddled with guilt because deep down she knew he would come back to her as soon as he could. Everyone theorizes that he must have been disoriented from the cold and simply missed his own house before he froze to death in the snow.
When Ann runs up to his body, however, she notices fresh white paint on his hand. It’s the same paint she used on the door earlier that evening, suggesting that John actually made it home safely, but when he found the two in bed together, he walked back into the snow to die.