Margaret and her husband Brad arrange for a much-anticipated vacation to New York City, where they are staying at the apartment of a friend who is out of town. Eager to escape her country life and experience the big city, Margaret finds herself humming a tune as the train approaches the city. Upon arrival, they settle into their apartment and go sightseeing for a few days. They make plans to visit friends, go shopping, attend parties, and so on. The first few days of the trip pass by very quickly.
Brad and Margaret go to a party in a cramped apartment, which is filled with many people. Margaret finds herself acting slightly differently from the way she would act at home—different mannerisms, gestures, speaking styles. When the room becomes too warm, Margaret goes to the window and leans out. She notices a crowd of people on the street, shouting to her that the building is on fire.
Extremely concerned, Margaret returns to the party and tries to warn her fellow partygoers without sounding too panicked. However, no one hears her or pays attention. Panicking, Margaret rushes out of the building and onto the street, only to discover that the building several doors down is on fire, which is put out quickly in ten minutes.
Brad and Margaret return to their apartment, where Margaret expresses her feelings of fear, panic, and claustrophobia when she had thought the building was on fire. From then on, Margaret’s perception of New York drastically changes. When she goes toy-shopping for her children, she finds city toys too adult-like and inappropriate for her children. She is too afraid to take the bus, and the buildings in New York seem to her to be on the edge of destruction. Life in New York rushes by in a blur, leaving Margaret feeling uneasy.
They go to Long Island for the weekend to visit friends, where Margaret remains nervous about parties and fire hazards. She and Brad take a walk on the beach, when they encounter a girl who looks frightened. She has discovered a leg on the beach, and together, they call the police to investigate the matter. Margaret’s hostess mentions that an arm washed up in another town nearby.
Margaret and Brad return to Manhattan, and she refuses to go out the next day with Brad. Instead, she remains within the neighborhood, only going to the local Automat for breakfast. The tune from the train returns to her, this time upsetting her instead of exciting her. Margaret, restless and unsettled in the apartment, goes to the corner store but has great difficulty crossing the street: the pedestrians, cars, and noises frighten her.
On her way back from the store, Margaret waits through several lights, unable to cross the street. She is paralyzed and unable to move. She returns to the drugstore under the guise of ordering a drink, then attempts a second time to cross the street. Feeling increasingly conspicuous, Margaret cannot bring herself to cross the street. She returns to the drugstore to make a call to Brad and plead for him to return home to help her.
Like Clara Spencer, Margaret's experience in New York slowly drives her to madness. The protagonist commences the trip feeling very excited about the vacation and looking forward to spending time in the seemingly glamorous urban environment. She "had never seen New York except in movies, when the city was made up, to her, of penthouses filled with Noel Coward people" (172). However, various incidents (the nearby fire and the beached body part) traumatically affect Margaret in New York. She becomes more paranoid: "She was frankly afraid by now to take a bus" (177). By the end of the story, Margaret is unable to cross the intersection by herself and must telephone her husband for assistance.
The fire incident at the party she attends is her first significant negative experience in New York. Standing at the window, Margaret sees people on the street staring at a building, which she believes to be the one in which she stands. She can hear them shouting about a fire as well. However, when Margaret relays this information to her fellow party-goers, no one pays attention to her. This leads her to feel invisible, unheard, truly lost in the hustle and bustle of the party, and by extension of New York—even though her husband is with her. She runs out of the building in a panic, only to discover that the fire affects another building. Later, she tells Brad: "'I was so frightened ... They wouldn't listen ... I kept telling them and they wouldn't listen ... I felt trapped ... High up in that old building with a fire; it's like a nightmare. And in a strange city" (176). Clearly, the fire traumatizes Margaret deeply, and the New York setting, this "strange city," is no coincidence.
As seen in other stories in this collection, New York City plays a major role in causing the destruction of Jackson protagonists. In "Pillar of Salt," Margaret is struck by the impersonality of the city, the anonymity with which people stream in and out of apartments, office buildings, taxis, and public transportation. She feels lost in the crowd, but also "trapped" by the countless sky-rises and apartment buildings, which all look the same to her.
Moreover, the speed of life in New York frightens her. "The people hurled on in a frantic action ... Everything was imperceptibly quicker every minute" (178). The people in New York, to Margaret, are faceless masses, and she feels lost among them. "[N]o one ever saw me here before, they all go by too fast" (182). As a result of feeling thus marginalized, Margaret gradually loses her sense of self to the point that she cannot function without her husband's assistance to cross the street. Clearly out of her depth in New York, Margaret becomes more susceptible to mental instability.
The tune which plagues Margaret's mind from the beginning to the end of the short story is a metaphor for her perception of New York. In the beginning, she enjoys humming the tune and passes on the excitement to Brad, who picks it up as well. They cannot name the tune—they are as of yet unaware of the dangers and excitement of the city—but they like it. By the end, however, "the nasty little tune was running through her head again, with its burden of suavity and expensive perfume" (181). The tune has the same number of beats as the number of apartment building windows on each floor, as far as Margaret can tell. Thus, the nameless tune comes to symbolize the terrifying anonymity she feels in New York, which causes her to self-destruct.
After the fire incident, Margaret nearly regroups during her excursion to Long Island, especially when she and Brad take a walk along the beach:
“The beach pleased her; it was oddly familiar and reassuring.... The beach was the one where she had lived in imagination, writing for herself dreary love-broken stories where the heroine walked beside the wild waves; the little tune was the symbol of the golden world she escaped into to avoid the everday dreariness that drove her into writing depressing stories about the beach”
However, this idyllic haven is utterly destroyed when they discover the gruesome human remains on the beach. Margaret's center of fantasy, which actually keeps her grounded and provides a fantasy outlet to soothe her nerves, is destroyed. She thus loses her identity in the daily humdrum of New York and becomes virtually paralyzed.
Margaret's antagonist is not a singular person, but rather her experience in New York and the anonymity of urban life in general. The setting of this story is of extreme significance. For Jackson, the city presents many different dangers from urban settings, in which her characters are ordinarily repressed by narrow-mindedness, bigotry, gossip, and social constraints. In the city, however, Jackson characters like Margaret suffer from disintegration of the self.
The discovery of the body part discovered on the Long Island beach also serves as a more concrete symbol of the fragmentation of the self, this time in physical form. Margaret says that people are “starting to come apart” (181). Margaret herself comes apart in New York and is unable to put the pieces of her identity back together.
The title of this story, "Pillar of Salt," is not simply an allusion to the biblical story regarding Lot's wife, who becomes a pillar of salt when looking backward toward her burning hometown of Sodom. Salt dissolves easily in water; this imagery gives the reader the sense that New York has easily dissolved Margaret's identity and sense of self. She becomes wholly unable to function, even unable to cross the street without calling her husband in a panic for assistance. She is frozen in the new setting as she hopes she could just be done with this scary vacation.
Moreover, the biblical reference to the destruction of the city of Sodom serves as a metaphor for Margaret, her actions, and her experiences in New York. Like Lot's wife turning to view the destruction of Sodom, Margaret turns to look at the building (in which the party takes place) to see if it is being consumed by fire, after hearing the shouts from the street. From this point onward, Margaret is slowly rendered a pillar of salt, paralyzed by the city. From Margaret's perspective, the city and everything in it—the street, apartment buildings, even the people—appear to be in a state of decay, which is analogous to the sinful decay of Sodom. When she looks down at her windowsill, it "was partly eaten away; when she touched the stone a few crumbs rolled off and fell" (182).