Mrs. Arnold visits a doctor—not her family doctor, because she does not want to alert her husband to her visit. She asks the doctor how to tell if an individual is going crazy. The doctor asks Mrs. Arnold to elaborate.
Mrs. Arnold describes an incident in which her husband was unable to purchase a copy of the Times at his usual newsstand and became unreasonably distraught for the rest of the day. She wonders why terms such as “psychosomatic medicine” or “international cartels” exist. In his medical explanation to her, the doctor begins to use equally complicated but seemingly nonsensical, overly verbose terms. Mrs. Arnold becomes almost hysterical, and the doctor rebukes her. He continues to use inscrutable terms. Giving up, Mrs. Arnold simply repeats a few key words—“disoriented,” “alienation,” and “reality”—and leaves.
Of all the stories in this collection, "Colloquy" most directly attempts to address the unstable experiences of many of her characters. Mrs. Arnold goes to the doctor solely for the purpose of discussing her husband's perceived mental breakdown. After he did not obtain the daily paper once, Mrs. Arnold describes how he became disproportionately upset. She wonders whether certain factors in society have led to such behaviors in people. Mrs. Arnold's view of the world is similar to that of Eileen from "The Intoxicated," which is that the world at large and its inhabitants are headed towards self-destruction.
Unlike Eileen, Mrs. Arnold is much more frightened by the dire prospects of the world's future. She says, "Is everyone really crazy but me?" (110). This statement suggests that perhaps Jackson's protagonists are not fundamentally unstable, but the nature of their environment causes them to become so. If anyone, the reader sympathizes with Mrs. Arnold, not the doctor. She is not thought to be crazy. However, her experience with her husband, and then with her doctor, potentially drive her mad. Thus, Mrs. Arnold's potential instability is engendered by her environment, by the ways of society; it is not rooted in an independent psychosis.
Furthermore, Jackson demonstrates how these instances of instability and delusion may not necessarily be treatable by a doctor. In fact, Mrs. Arnold's doctor is coldly ineffective in alleviating her concerns about her husband, herself, and the world in general. The doctor uses seemingly overcomplicated terms, leading Mrs. Arnold to perceive her environment negatively as "disorientation" or "alienation."
This story also demonstrates various levels of irony. First, in her discussion of insanity, Mrs. Arnold is concerned about her husband and about the world at large. However, as soon as she mentions insanity, her doctor, as antagonist instead of helper, becomes concerned about Mrs. Arnold's own state of mind. Then, when the doctor attempts to treat her by explaining what causes her husband's behavior, this solidifies Mrs. Arnold's belief that everyone in the world except her is going crazy. She thus becomes more hysterical, which conversely solidifies the doctor's perception that she is unstable.
Finally, dramatic irony is employed because the reader recognizes Mrs. Arnold's point and commiserates with her, though the doctor still believes that she may be mentally ill. "But the reader senses that the price for her refusal to accept the doctor's, and the rest of society's, definition of reality will be loneliness and madness" (Parks, from Murphy, 237). In the final stroke of irony, the woman who has visited the doctor to discuss her husband's and others' insanity is rendered mad by the doctor's treatment.