25 pages 50 minutes read

Sinclair Ross

The Painted Door

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1941

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Painted Door”

“The Painted Door” is a short story by Sinclair Ross. It was first published in 1938 and later reprinted in The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories by Sinclair Ross in 1988. Ross is known for his fiction (both short stories and novels) depicting life on the Canadian prairies, particularly during the Great Depression. The author was born in 1908 on a homestead near Shellbrook, Saskatchewan, Canada, and lived in various locations across the Canadian prairies. In 1984, “The Painted Door” was adapted into a short film and received a nomination from the Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short Film.

This study guide refers to the edition available free online through AnyFlip.

Content Warning: The source text contains an implied suicide.

“The Painted Door” is set in an unnamed location on the rural Canadian prairies during the 1930s. The story opens with a husband and wife, John and Ann, having breakfast on their homestead while a winter storm brews outside. John tells Ann that he plans to walk the five miles across the hills to check on his elderly father, as the roads are impassable. Ann accuses John of prioritizing his father over her. She does not want to be left alone on the farm and frets that there will be a violent storm due to the double wheel around the moon the night before. John assures her that there is nothing to worry about, as the farm chores are done for the day and she can stay safely inside. He plans to be back by evening to take care of the animals before bed.

Ann stares out the window at the frigid landscape and shows a cold demeanor toward John. She says that she has gotten used to being left alone after being a farmer’s wife for seven years. John promises to be back by the evening, no matter how bad the storm is. He reminds Ann that in the years they have been together, he has never stayed away from her.

Ann tells John that she gets lonely when he is away. John says that Ann needs company. He volunteers to make a two-mile detour to ask Steven (their neighbor) to come by later for a game of cards. Ann says that she will paint the woodwork in the kitchen while John is gone to keep herself busy. She suggests that John should shave and clean himself up before he goes, pointing out that Steven will be freshly shaven. However, John doesn’t see the point and asserts that the cold wind will make his skin raw.

Finally, John leaves to make the trek to his father’s farm. He tells Ann that if he is not back in time for dinner, she and Steven should eat without him. Ann watches John leave and then makes herself busy. She paints the woodwork in the kitchen and on the bedroom door. The house is oppressively quiet, apart from the sounds of the fire and the clock ticking. Ann tells herself that she was being unreasonable with John, as she is safe and warm. Her emotions vacillate between forced optimism and resentment. She tries to cheer herself up with the thought of spring approaching but realizes that she will still be lonely, as John will work longer hours. Ann knows that John works hard for her since he feels like he has nothing else to offer.

Ann thinks of how her husband's priorities clash with her own. John is committed to saving money and paying off the mortgage. However, she wants to enjoy life while they are still young. Ann recalls when she and John went to a dance at the schoolhouse. John felt uncomfortable and did not dance, so she danced with Steven “six or seven times” (6). She then reminds herself that John is “a good man” (7).

The blizzard outside worsens, and Ann worries that the weather will be too bad for John to make it home. She also doubts that Steven will attempt the mile’s journey to their house. Ann dresses in John’s warm clothing and attempts to go out to feed the animals for the night. However, the wind blows her over, and she feels like she cannot breathe. Panicking, she returns to the house. Ann worries that the animals will freeze and blames John for leaving her alone.

Steven arrives, and Ann welcomes him inside. He expresses amused concern at Ann’s fear and assures her that he will take care of everything. Ann notices how different Steven is from John. He is young, handsome, and confident in the company of women.

Steven goes out to do the chores while Ann fixes her hair and puts on a new dress. When he returns, Steven insists several times that John will not attempt to come home in the blizzard. Ann hangs blankets at the door to keep out the draft and realizes that she has smudged the fresh white paint.

As time passes, Ann grows increasingly jumpy. She tries to play cards with Steven but is startled by every noise, thinking it may be John. Steven tells her not to worry and reaffirms that John will not return that night, as the severity of the storm is unprecedented. Ann realizes that Steven has been in her thoughts since she danced with him seven years earlier.

The story jumps ahead to Ann lying awake in bed while Steven sleeps next to her. The storm frightens her, and the shadows on the wall seem to come to life, morphing into John’s face. Ann expects John to reach for her throat, but he just looks at her with despair. She tries to call to him, but he leaves, and Ann jolts awake. She feels guilty and assumes she dreamt that John caught her and Steven in bed together.

Ann weeps remorsefully. She leaves Steven in bed and goes to sit by the fire. Recalling her seven years of marriage to John, she recognizes their “worth and dignity” (18). Ann notes Steven’s “arrogant” expression as he sleeps and realizes that she has risked her marriage for a meaningless sexual encounter.

The narrative jumps ahead to the next morning. John’s frozen body is found in a field near the house. The people who find him express surprise that he died so close to home. Alone with his corpse, Ann touches John’s hand and discovers a smear of white paint from the bedroom door on his palm.

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By Sinclair Ross