The first story in Jackson’s collection, “The Intoxicated,” takes place at an ordinary house party in suburban America, as do many of the stories in this collection. The scene of the party is quite ordinary: “the group by the piano singing ‘Stardust,’ his hostess talking earnestly to a young man … a little group of four or five people sat on the stiff chairs….” (9).
An unnamed male guest, intoxicated, escapes to the kitchen supposedly to retrieve more ice, but in fact hoping to become sober. In the kitchen, the guest encounters Eileen, the daughter of the party hosts, sitting across from him at the table and having a cup of coffee. Eileen, 17, is a senior in high school, having stayed back one year in school due to pneumonia. To the guest, Eileen seems “baggy and ill-formed; it’s the clothes they wear now, young girls, he thought foggily; her hair was braided down either side of her face, and she looked young and fresh and not dressed-up” (9).
Eileen offers the guest black coffee, which he uses to clear his head. She comments that the party must be fun, without expressing any desire or longing to join the party. Eileen is in the kitchen to escape the heat from upstairs, where she was finishing a paper regarding the future of the world.
The guest encounters difficulties, whether actual or perceived, relating to Eileen; he struggles to find a topic of conversation, wondering if he should ask her about boys and basketball. He is irritated that he must make an effort to talk to her. However, Eileen unhesitatingly tells the guest about her paper and states that she does not believe the world has much of a future at all. The guest, put off by her precociousness and earnestness, attempts to brush her off at first. “‘It’s an interesting time to be alive,’ he said, as though he were still at the party” (10).
As the conversation continues, the guest seems to become more impatient with Eileen and gives her rather condescending responses. When Eileen says that, given the current state of the world, “I don’t really think it’s got much future” (10), the guest answers that girls in his generation thought only about cocktails and necking. Eileen remains unperturbed by his mocking attitude and continues the conversation seriously: “If people had been really, honestly scared when you were young we wouldn’t be so badly off today” (11).
At this point, the guest is clearly put off by Eileen and the conversation. “[H]e turned partly away from her as though to indicate the half-interest of an older person being gracious to a child” (11). Nonetheless, Eileen continues to describe her vision of the “end” of the world: churches would be first destroyed, “then all the big apartment houses by the river, slipping down slowly into the water with the people inside…” (11). She wonders whether the students in her Latin class will be the last to read Caesar once the world is destroyed. The guest responds flippantly to these predictions, finding them to be “morbid trash” (Jackson 11).
Eileen carries her vision of the future to its final end, when there are no schools, no houses: “We’ll have new rules and new ways of living” (12). Uncomfortable, the guest ends the conversation and exits the kitchen. Before leaving, he considers saying “something adult and scathing” (12) but decides instead to offer his assistance with her Latin homework. Eileen giggles and informs him that she still completes her homework.
The guest returns to the party and tells Eileen’s father that he has just had an interesting conversation with her. The guest claims that Eileen is completing her Latin homework in the kitchen, and the father quotes Julius Caesar in Latin. Then, Eileen’s father and the guest commiserate over the state of “[k]ids nowadays” (12).
For the first story in this collection, Jackson puts forth the notion that society is progressing in a detrimental manner through the dire predictions Eileen makes regarding the world’s future. This view is shared by other female characters in the collection, particularly when they encounter a wholly new environment, such as Margaret in "Pillar of Salt" or Mrs. Arnold in "Colloquy." For unclear reasons, Eileen perceives that the world and its inhabitants are headed towards self-destruction. She describes the world's prospective destruction and resulting chaos in physical terms. "The subways will crash through, you know, and the little magazine stands will all be squashed" (11). Much to the guest's discomfort, however, Eileen regards this projected destruction almost with awe. The man is unsettled by her demeanor and thus dismisses her prediction as youthful foolishness.
Another theme in this story—exemplified by the lack of understanding between the guest and Eileen, in addition to the impatience and discomfort he feels with their conversation—highlights the guest’s inability to break away from the conformity of suburban society. The first introduction to the guest, at a nondescript party, indicates his subscription to the harmful boredom of suburbia—a theme upon which Jackson expands in subsequent stories. As the story progresses, the guest’s condescension towards Eileen indicates his discomfort at the possibility that she is accurate and insightful. "His voice had more of an edge than he intended ... and he turned partly away from her as though to indicate the half-interest of an older person being gracious to a child" (11). At the story's conclusion, he and her father attempt to brush off her brutal honesty by citing the younger generation’s peculiarities, which they assume she will outgrow. "His host shook his head ruefully. 'Kids nowadays,' he said" (12).
“The Intoxicated” also touches upon another Jackson theme, the significance of homes, particularly as they are linked to people’s identities. Eileen states, “Maybe there’ll be a law not to live in houses, so then no one can hide from anyone else, you see” (12). She implies that in the identical masses of suburban homes, people begin to lose their individual identities and become subsumed in the anonymity of suburbia. If the world's self-implosion were to destroy homes, people would no longer lose their individuality through the process of conformity witnessed in suburban neighborhoods, for such neighborhoods would no longer exist without physical houses. As a result, people would be forced to face themselves—their true identities—and those around them with honesty.
The story is told from the point of view of the drunk man. However, Jackson does not make clear that he is the protagonist. On the contrary, the reader sympathizes more easily with Eileen; the narrator's inner thoughts depict his resentment and condescension towards her, thus rendering him a less pleasant character. "He wanted badly to say something adult and scathing ..." (12).
The drunk guest dimly but correctly perceives that Eileen is more aware and knowledgeable of the state of the world than he is. This is the primary cause of conflict within "The Intoxicated," though both he and Eileen are too polite to confront each other directly. Instead, each makes veiled jibes regarding what women of their respective generations "should" be learning, thinking about, or reading. "In my day, he thought of saying mockingly, girls thought of nothing but cocktails and necking" (11).
This is another example of the guest's conformity to expected or accepted behavior, to the politeness that Eileen believes the world's destruction will end. Were houses no longer in existence and people unable to hide, she and the guest could confront one another more directly without having to conform to the standards of polite behavior. In this story, however, the guest is constrained by societal convention and can only internalize the nasty jibes he wants to make toward her. He cannot confront her directly and dispute her view of the world as he wishes to do.