On an August afternoon, Jerry Lane walks in his best Sunday waistcoat. He reaches the window of Miss Ann Floyd, an aging but independent spinster. Driven by loneliness, Ann (or Nancy, as she is also known) responds to Jerry’s advances. They gossip about the hypochondriac Mrs. Elton and Ann invites Jerry to stay for tea. He kisses her and she is bewitched.
The townspeople do not see this as a good match. They see that ‘she would have done vastly better to deny herself such an expensive and utterly worthless luxury’ as Jerry.
Jerry and Ann have a simple, dignified wedding. Ann was happy and ‘cherished’ her husband, though he was lazy and ‘irresponsible’. There is tension until Jerry says he ‘ain’t done my part for our livin’’ and he decides to go to sea again. He has signed up with Skipper Nathan on a ship called the Susan Barnes. Ann agrees this is for the best, as she contemplates all the tasks around the house he has failed to complete.
When Jerry does not return after three months, Ann is saddened. She missed his ‘amusing though unedifying conversation’ His ship, the Susan Barnes, was sailing between Shediac and Newfoundland, and Jerry had managed to hand over five dollars to give to his wife as part of his earnings. When the ship is reported sunk, it is assumed Jerry is dead and poor Ann’ looked her widowhood in the face.’
Mrs Lane was much aged by her experiences. She mourns her husband, but more the hopes she placed on him than his actual character –‘she mourned for the man he ought to have been, not for the real Jerry.
Mrs Elton prophesied that Ann has not heard the last of Jerry, and indeed dramatic information is received from Mrs Elton via Skipper Nathan Low. Jerry was not on the Susan Barnes when it sank. He had set himself up with a new wife in Shediac.
Ann resolves to expose ‘the baseness and cowardice of this miserable man’ and travels to Shediac to confront him face to face. However, when she reaches the house he sees a young, ‘efficient’ woman and Jerry cradling a laughing baby. She decides that she does not wish to destroy the happy family in front of her: ‘She could not enter in and break another heart; hers was broken already, and it would not matter.’
Ann then has to not only face life alone, but with the knowledge that others know her betrayal. She is ‘shamed, disgraced and wronged.’, but, as the omniscient narrator points out, she is as steady and stalwart as the Marsh Rosemary, which holds its own against more beautiful and revered blooms.
In a letter to Ms. Annie Fields, Jewett describes the story as one that ‘deals with real life’. The story begins in summer heat, and the pathetic fallacy used suggests that this reflects the status of Ann Floyd – soon to be past her prime. The surroundings are ‘becalmed and motionless’ as Jerry Lane appears, and this echoes his lazy and shiftless character. We see his carelessness in his dress: he has a Sunday waistcoat although it is Saturday, but his lack of coat and his day shoes and trousers suggests lack of attention rather than a desire to impress.
He approaches Miss Ann Floyd’s house. She is ‘grim’ and ‘old-fashioned’ but also ‘trusted’ and ‘a lonely soul’. She seems beyond girlish desires: the narrator addresses us in the second person to connect us with Ann and to consider her position carefully:‘You would think she had done with youth and with love affairs’. However, Ann is excited at Jerry’s visit. She blushes and invites him in. Jewett uses the allusion of Juliet from Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to indicate Ann’s inner childish desire which is at odds with her lack of enthusiasm when addressing Jerry.
Their conversation about Mrs. Elton and her hypochondria appear as a uniting factor in their relationship. This is ironic as Mrs. Elton is the character who discovers Jerry’s secret and imparts it to Ann. Ann’s decision to accept Jerry’s advances is a huge one: ‘a great crisis in her life’ as she decides to take on this youthful but idle husband, rather than remain alone. She indicates that he will perhaps be a suitable counterpart and foil to her: ‘His ease-loving, careless nature was like a comfortable cushion for hers.’ The simile used here suggests that she feels he will make her more tender and gentle.
The reader senses that the emotion may not be genuine from Jerry’s side. His ‘instinctive laughter nearly got the better of him’, which implies that he does not view the approach to their first kiss as romantically as Ann does. She is also a ‘prize’ to him, which contrasts with him being described as an ‘utterly worthless luxury’ to her.
Ann’s wedding attire is ‘plain’ and she ‘kept on dressing old enough to look like Jerry Lane’s mother.’ She and her husband were respectable and dignified at the wedding, although things began to decline after some months. Jewett uses metaphors of the sea to describe Jerry’s perceptions of the relationship – ‘having made a good anchorage in a well-sheltered harbor’. In addition, this language foreshadows Jerry’s decision to go back to sea.
When Jerry does not reappear, Ann deteriorates ‘swiftly from middle life and an almost youthful vigor to early age and a look of spent strength and dissatisfaction.’ When the loss of his ship is discovered, Ann’s friends are pleased that the ‘idle vagabond’ is out of her life. We have a situation reminiscent of Kate Chopin’s later but better known ’The Story of an Hour’ where the emotions of the ‘heroine’ are at odds with our expectations – ‘she was really happier and better satisfied with life than she had ever been before.’ It is as if Ann needs to have an outlet for her ‘hoarded affection’, but does not want the encumbrance of a man sharing her life. She is eager to be part of the community, which endears her to her neighbors. We see Ann energized and positive in her actions; with a carefully chosen floral metaphor, she ‘blossomed out suddenly’. This greatness of heart still contrasts with her harsh appearance ‘looking as savage as a hawk.’ It is interesting that these two natural images contrast each other so strongly.
Her benevolence to others convinces Mrs. Elton not to tell everyone about the errant Jerry Lane and his new life. Just as Ann finds the inner strength not to break the heart of Jerry’s new partner, so Mrs. Elton ‘forebore’ to save her old adversary’s reputation.
Ann travels far to expose her errant husband, a journey compared to a visit to ‘the most primitive region of China’. The seafaring metaphor returns as she approaches the home of her husband and her desire ‘to shelter herself behind the flimsy bulwark of his manhood’. Her age is evident as she sees her young husband looking ‘thrifty and respectable’. Jewett uses pathetic fallacy again as the sadness around Ann’s discovery is revealed ‘The tears were running down Nancy’s cheeks; the rain, too, had begun to fall.’
She returns to her solitary life, but is respected greatly by the omniscient narrator for her strength and fortitude. Ann Lane has many facets to her. She is identified as Nancy Lane, Ann Lane, Nancy Floyd and Ann Floyd. When she is described as the Marsh Rosemary at the end of the story we understand the metaphorical comparison between the ‘gray primness of the plant is made up of a hundred colors if you look close enough’ and Ann, who is a complex character beneath her stern, plain exterior.