Elizabeth Style, who lives in New York and works in a small literary agency, is pulled from her dream of a warm and beautiful climate to the reality of an ugly, rainy day. She prepares herself for work, dresses, and cleans her apartment. On her way out of the apartment, her neighbor, Mrs. Anderson, complains about a male neighbor who left his skis outside and nearly caused her to trip. Another neighbor joins them and tells Elizabeth that she nearly caught her male caller the previous night.
Then, Elizabeth goes to the drug store for orange juice and meets Tommy, the clerk, who also longs to be in a warmer place, like Florida. Elizabeth inquires about Tommy’s progress on his play, and he confesses that he completed and sent it away, but not to Elizabeth’s agency.
On her commute to work, Elizabeth, still offended that Tommy did not send her his play, pushes against the other people boarding the bus. A woman rebukes her publicly for doing so and continues to complain even when they are on the bus. The woman calls Elizabeth a “dried-up old maid” (115), and though Elizabeth does not retaliate, as soon as she leaves the bus, she wishes she had responded.
Elizabeth arrives at work to find that her boss, colleague, and lover, Robert Shax, is already there. He must meet with an undesirable client, and Liz bolsters his ego to propel him on his trip. They make plans to meet for lunch, as usual, and he leaves. Liz goes through the mail.
Suddenly, an attractive younger woman arrives and introduces herself as Daphne Hill, the new office assistant. Liz realizes that Robert did not have the courage to tell her that he had hired a young woman to work for the agency. Elizabeth does not like the addition of Daphne and puts her to work in reception, strictly upholding the office rules that they not talk through doors, though the walls in the office are only poorly constructed partitions designed to resemble real walls.
Elizabeth goes out for lunch and waits for Robert. When he arrives, she knows that the client meeting did not go well, judging from his demeanor. Elizabeth passively-aggressively confronts him about his hiring of Daphne. Suddenly, Elizabeth believes she spots a childhood friend in the restaurant, a man named Frank. Robert remembers that they must return to the office so that Daphne can go to lunch as well. As they leave, Elizabeth tells Robert that he is continually gaining weight.
At the office, Elizabeth is angered to discover Daphne reading a book that had been in her office. Robert is jovial and friendly to Daphne, but Elizabeth is cold. Robert and Daphne discuss work-related issues in his “office,” while Elizabeth, next door, strains to listen to their conversation. Elizabeth interrupts them to tell Robert about a letter from the employee replaced by Daphne, who is upset about losing her job.
Elizabeth returns a message from her uncle, who is visiting New York and hopes to see her. She declines his invitation to dinner by pretending that she has a client meeting. However, when Elizabeth tries to make dinner plans with Robert, he gives her the exact same excuse. They have an awkward conversation, as both recognize his flimsy excuse; peeved, Elizabeth fairly pushes him out of the office to relax, insisting that he seems stressed and needs a break.
While Robert is gone, Elizabeth calls up a former client, James Harris, whose autograph hangs in Robert’s office as one of their few successes. Over the phone, Elizabeth coerces Harris into having dinner with her, though he makes several attempts to put it off. Then, Elizabeth informs Daphne that she is fired—but first, she forces Daphne to finish a letter, criticizing her first draft bluntly.
Elizabeth returns home, eager to prepare for her evening with James Harris and his sister. She cleans her apartment, changes, and then waits for Harris’s arrival. As she waits, she fantasizes about a new apartment and a new job and believes that Harris is her ticket to this new life. Forgetting that she hardly knows Harris, Elizabeth becomes removed from reality, simply drifting back into the dream that begins the story.
The setting of this story is New York City, which is of significance when compared to other city settings in Jackson's collection, such as "Pillar of Salt" and "The Tooth." In all of these stories, female protagonists are seemingly overwhelmed by the urban lifestyle; in the extreme cases of Margaret ("Pillar of Salt") and Clara ("The Tooth"), the city practically consumes their identities and renders them insane. In this particular story, Elizabeth is shown to succumb, though more gradually, to the attractive power of her fantasies regarding a better life, a better apartment, and a better job through the imagined assistance of James Harris. Clearly, Elizabeth hopes to escape the dreary confines of New York, which has not helped her achieve her dreams, as she had once hoped it would.
Elizabeth is another Jackson character who has succumbed to the pettiness of everyday life in contemporary society but still yearns for something better. Her pettiness is displayed by the following examples: her disproportionately angry reaction to Tommy, simply because he does not submit his manuscript to her office; the anger she feels for the woman on the bus, after Elizabeth rudely jostles her; her immediate dislike of Daphne Hill, though the latter cannot be held accountable for her looks and youth; and her condescending verbal jabs at Robert, though the two are meant to be in a romantic relationship. In the morning, Elizabeth dreads the coming day: "she could hear the ugly morning noises of people stirring, getting out to work. She put her feet reluctantly out from under the blankets" (111). These actions and feelings, however inconsequential in the context of her entire day, demonstrate how Elizabeth is generally discontented.
At the same time, Elizabeth attempts to maintain the illusion of her glamorous lifestyle, particularly to her family from an unnamed small town (like Hilda Clarence in "The Villager"). Elizabeth throws away a warm letter from her father with no display of sentiment or affection. In addition, she rejects her uncle's dinner invitation, although her relatives do not visit New York very often. Thus, by distancing herself from them and immersing herself further in her New York lifestyle, Elizabeth tries to reinforce a feeling of superiority over her hometown friends and relatives.
Threatened by Daphne's youth and beauty, Elizabeth fires her before her first day is over but cannot even bring herself to be honest about the firing. Instead, Elizabeth insinuates to Daphne that Robert wants to fire her, even though this is untrue. Through this detail, Elizabeth is also displayed as a weaker, dishonest character who is unable to own up to her true motives. Elizabeth is simply unable to bear the presence of Daphne, her foil both inwardly and outwardly. Daphne is young and attractive, with a stable family life, while Elizabeth is plain, middle-aged, and lonely. Perhaps Daphne serves as a reminder to Elizabeth of what she has never been. Furthermore, Daphne's presence threatens Elizabeth's stable (if dreary) arrangement with Robert, both personally and professionally. "Is he trying in his own heavy-handed fashion to beautify the office?" (121). The juxtaposition of these two characters highlights Elizabeth's various reasons to be miserable and, thus, to seek the company of James Harris.
James Harris makes another appearance in the collection in "Elizabeth." She believes that he is her ticket to a better life, and allows herself to drift into the same fantasy she dreams about at the opening of the story. As she anticipates Harris's arrival, Elizabeth thinks, "she would be happy tonight, she would be successful, something wonderful would happen to change her whole life" (139). The presence of Jim Harris, clearly, is a symbol of mental instability and desperate unhappiness, as well as the fantastical efforts to escape these. The Harris in "Elizabeth" is reluctant to meet with Elizabeth for dinner. The reader senses his hesitation over the phone, particularly when he uses the excuse of his sister's visit to postpone their plans to meet. However, Elizabeth is insistent upon meeting him immediately. This insistence correlates with her determination to pursue her fantasies of an improved lifestyle.
The character names in this story are not mere coincidences. "Elizabeth Style" comes from another excerpt from Glanvil's book on witchcraft, in which a widow of that name is accused of being a witch. This allusion lends Jackson's "Elizabeth" a fantastical air, as hinted by the beginning and conclusion of the story, as Elizabeth removes herself from reality. Furthermore, the Glanvil witch's victim is named Elizabeth Hill, as in Daphne Hill. Likewise, Daphne is a victim of Elizabeth's jealousy and pettiness, which directly cause her job loss.
Characterized as an unjustly persecuted witch, Elizabeth Style (of Jackson's story) is not an unredeemed protagonist. Instead, Jackson portrays her more as a victim of her environment, the bustling city, and its harsh expectations of its inhabitants. During Elizabeth's first months in New York, "there was no one around to tell Elizabeth Style ... that if she got the job it wasn't worth getting" (116). Unlike Daphne, Elizabeth never had the support of close family members or friends in New York. As a result, the city swallows her whole and renders her a plain and lonely middle-aged woman who desperately hangs on to her unworthy job and unworthy romantic partner while fruitlessly dreaming of a better life.
Ultimately, Elizabeth is also her own antagonist: she is unhappy but makes no concrete efforts to change her life, instead hanging her desperate hopes on the unwilling Jim Harris. Again, the Harris in this short story is not imagined. He is a "real" character, one of the literary agency's successful writers. However, Harris's positive role in Elizabeth's life is imagined. She believes that by associating herself with Harris, he will somehow lift her from her undesirable life and enable her to become happier, to achieve her dreams. Instead of taking concrete steps to make herself happy, such as quitting her job and breaking up with Robert, Elizabeth chooses to indulge in the fantasy of James Harris. Through passivity, Elizabeth blocks her own attempts to seek happiness.
"Elizabeth" thus exemplifies Jackson's primary themes, including female loneliness, discontentment and dissatisfaction, as well as people’s forays into the fantastic in search of improving their status.