Earl Fenton and his wife, Maude Fenton, have just arrived home to their brand new mansion, after a trip around the world. Immediately, Earl receives a phone call from Charley Freeman, his fraternity brother from college who has apparently just arrived in town. Almost impulsively, Earl invites Charley to stay at their new home.
Meanwhile, Maude is wondering how to use a switch panel in the hallway. The whole house is full of modern gadgets of that sort. Earl suggests they call Lou Converse, the contractor who designed their house as a "machine for living," so he can show them how everything works (56).
Earl explains to Maude that Charley was always sophisticated and successful in college, while Earl had to work as a waiter to support himself. It is clear that Earl still resents having had to wait on his more affluent classmates and fraternity brothers, and feels they looked down on him for it. Throughout the story, Earl anticipates displaying his self-made wealth to Charley. Maude is quick to condemn Charley for his haughty ways.
They tour the house for the first time, to learn how to operate it before Charley arrives. Shortly afterwards, Lou Converse calls with news that a photographer from Home Beautiful magazine will be arriving that afternoon to take photos for a story on their new home.
When Charley arrives, Earl introduces him to Maude. Strangely, Charley asks what their TV set is, admitting that he has never seen one. Maude assumes he is mocking them, since his own TV must be so much bigger.
Lou Converse arrives with the photographer, who is named Slotkin, and a young woman writer. Slotkin and the writer explain their angle for the story: the couple has returned home from their cruise to a home that offers the complete "package" (51). Earl explains to the writer how he built and then sold his plant to make his fortune and afford this home, mentioning as well how he was often looked down upon for his poverty while in college. He glances over at Charley, who confirms good-naturedly that Earl did come from humble beginnings, but denies that any of the fraternity brothers ever looked down on him.
Slotkin, the woman writer, Lou Converse, and the Fentons move through the house room by room, while Charley follows, looking amused. Charley's attitude annoys Earl. The photographer asks the Fentons to pose for a photo of a dinner by candlelight, so they go upstairs to change into evening wear. While changing, Earl asks Maude whether she thinks Charley is impressed, and criticizes Charley's smugness. They begin to insult him, remarking on the shabbiness of his suit and shoes. Out the window, they overhear Charley tell Slotkin that he might settle down a bit farther inland, where prices are cheaper. This makes Maude suspicious, and she suggests that perhaps Charley did not just drop in "for old times' sake" after all (66).
At the dinner table, Slotkin instructs the Fentons and Charley to talk with each other to facilitate a candid photo. When the woman writer asks the Fentons what Asia was like, Earl feels nervous, since he knows Charley is quite informed and interested in world affairs. After describing their travels, Earl concludes that "there's nothing wrong with Asia that a little spunk and common sense and know-how won't cure" (67). Charley responds with thinly veiled scorn for this simplistic assessment (suggesting the situation is far more complicated), infuriating Earl. He immediately apologizes for his rudeness, but Earl and Maude are both incensed.
Slotkin instructs them to change back into the clothes they were wearing when they arrived home for the first time, so he can stage a photo of them with their suitcases, looking surprised. In their bedroom, Earl tells Maude that he had initially invited Charley to stay the night, but now worries Charley might expect to stay for a week or longer. Maude wonders aloud what Charley's scheme is, noting that he seems befuddled by all references to recent books. They ultimately decide to subtly suggest he leave.
After Slotkin has taken his final photograph, the magazine party leaves and the Fentons sit with Charley for cocktails. Charley compliments Earl for his home and his success, but Earl suspects Charley is building up to a request for money. He tries to put Charley on the defensive, asking him about his own life. Charley reveals that he has been out of the country for a while, and that his ship only recently docked nearby, which is why he looked Earl up.
Maude leaves the room and then returns with a false report that her sister Angela is suddenly en route with her family to spend the night there. Earl feigns concern that there might not be room for everyone, so Charley excuses himself, as expected.
As Charley gets into a taxi, Lou Converse returns to the house for his hat, which he had forgotten. Earl invites him to stay for dinner. As they dine, Lou regrets that Charley had to leave, and tells them what he learned from Charley. The latter has been in China for the past thirty years, where he invested his fortune into a hospital for the indigent. He had worked as a doctor until he was imprisoned by the Communists; he was only recently released.
Upon hearing this, Earl and Maude are overcome with guilt. Maude suggests calling the hotel and asking Charley to return, but realizes their lie makes that impossible. Earl presses a series of buttons, asking Lou which button they should press to "start today all over again" (74).
Class prejudice is prevalent in "The Package" through the characters of both Earl and Maude. Earl is still indignant about having to wait on his peers at the fraternity house, and resents Charley for being born into wealth. It is unclear whether he imagined this poor treatment: "People like Charley Freeman hadn't come right out and said anything to humiliate Earl when he'd waited on them" (58). It is hinted that Earl's humiliation was the result of paranoia, revealing a class prejudice within himself. For instance, when Charley enters their home, his face is described as, "subtly mocking," but only "in Earl's opinion" (61). Maude does not know the details of the story, but is eager to resent Charley on behalf of her husband. Ultimately, the twist ending suggests that class prejudice affects the poor as much as it does the rich.
This class prejudice is linked to the Fenton's total lack of self-awareness, as demonstrated in Earl's description of their time in Asia. While most of their fellow cruise travelers were uncomfortable looking at the poverty in Asia, he claims that "seeing as how we'd come up the hard way, I don't guess we had much on our consciences, and we could look out at those poor people and kind of understand" (60). Earl's lack of self-awareness plays into his defensiveness against Charley, as well. He tells Maude, "Doggone it, he used to make me feel like two bits, and he still does, looking at us like we were showing off instead of just trying to help a magazine out" (65). In fact, they are showing off. No matter how much success Earl has achieved, he maintains the chip on his shoulder, and works too hard to show it off.
The theme of technology is obvious in the descriptions of the Fenton's new home, a "machine for living" (56). Rather than a space where they can relax and feel comfortable, it is a monstrosity that confuses them. Its only purpose is to impress people like Charley Freeman, as proof that Earl has made enough money to purchase such a home. Charley has never seen a television set before, and asks if it hurts to touch the tube. But technology cannot substitute for human decency, a lesson Earl and Maude learn when they turn Charley out of their home only to discover that he has spent the past thirty years selflessly running a hospital in China. The poignancy of this message is evident in Earl's request at the end to "start today all over again" (74). Of course, no button can serve this purpose. Too many factors of life and personality have conspired to engender this depressing situation.
The way in which Maude and Earl Fenton interact in private is reminiscent of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Maude plants seeds of suspicion in her husband's mind about Charley, goading on his self-consciousness and defensiveness. She puts her hand on his shoulder and whispers in his ear, encouraging him to question his old friend's motives. This allusion is solidified when she quotes Macbeth after dinner, telling Earl, "I suppose something's rotten in the state of Denmark" in reference to Charley's situation (69). The suggestion is that great tragedy and menace exists even with regular people and every-day situations. We are all capable of the resentments that Shakespeare details.
But despite the Fenton's faults, Vonnegut does not depict them as truly evil people. After all, they feel shame when they realize their mistake. Rather, they are representative of a certain type of American, self-congratulatory for making their own fortune and using that accomplishment to justify mean-spirited actions. While Earl brags about having witnessed poverty in Asia, he and Maude have not actually acted to help the people suffering there. In contrast, Charley was born into wealth but used it funding and working in a Chinese hospital. The Fenton's shallowness prevents them from recognizing the uselessness of their trip around the world - they are too smug about their success to truly enjoy or share it.