A seemingly ordinary day begins in the life of Mrs. Walpole. She needs to hustle her twins, Jack and Judy, to school, as they dawdle over breakfast. Mrs. Walpole worries about the children being late to school or not preparing breakfast for her husband in a timely fashion, and she is generally consumed with mundane but oppressive concerns. She goes through the motions of completing her household responsibilities, feeling some resentment when her husband comes downstairs for his breakfast with only a perfunctory greeting. Her mind is “full of unfinished sentences that began, ‘Don’t you think other people ever have any feelings or –’” (56).
The phone rings, interrupting Mr. Walpole’s breakfast. Mrs. Walpole answers and learns that the family dog has been accused of killing the neighbor’s chickens. The caller insists that the Walpole dog, Lady, is the culprit and has been verified by another neighbor, Joe White. Mrs. Walpole is unsure of how to handle this unexpected conversation, and the aggressive caller warns her that the dog must be killed.
After the call, Mrs. Walpole is shaken at the thought of “taking care” of Lady. She postpones her laundry duties and instead goes next door to Mrs. Nash, who has already heard the gossip regarding Lady. Mrs. Walpole continues to town to do her shopping and passes Mr. White on the way, whom she now detests for his accusation against Lady. Mr. White matter-of-factly gives Mrs. Walpole advice on how to remedy Lady’s behavior by permanently tying a dead chicken around the dog’s neck until it rots away. This suggestion further horrifies Mrs. Walpole.
Mrs. Walpole goes to the grocery store, where she meets the grocer, Tom Kittredge, and another man in conversation. They too have already heard about Lady’s killing of the chickens and suggest inhumane methods of curbing her habit. However, their tone is derisive, not genuinely helpful or concerned with Mrs. Walpole’s predicament. Lady’s behavior is merely another source of small-town gossip.
Mrs. Walpole returns home and is there when Lady arrives from her morning activities. Mrs. Walpole notices the flecks of blood on her legs but is unable to bring herself to respond. Finally, Jack and Judy return from school, where they have also learned about Lady’s chicken killings. With childish enthusiasm and unthinking brutality, Jack and Judy describe how Lady must be punished: attaching a spiked collar to her neck and jerking the leash when she chases a chicken, thus decapitating her. Jack and Judy describe what would happen even as they hug and pet Lady. Mrs. Walpole, sickened by the thought, finds that she must leave the kitchen for fresh air. Even outside, she feels suffocated and oppressed, and she identifies with Lady, “suddenly feeling the harsh hands pulling her down, the sharp points closing in on her throat” (65).
In "The Renegade," Jackson does not make it clear whether the title refers to Mrs. Walpole, the protagonist, or to Lady, the dog. The dog serves as a metaphor for Mrs. Walpole and her own existence in the stifling small town, as she herself feels. Like Lady, she cannot live according to her own natural desires and wishes. She feels constrained by the expectations and judgments of others in the village. Lady is a renegade because she persists in killing the neighbors' chickens. Likewise, Mrs. Walpole is a renegade because she is unable to bring herself to put Lady down, as speculated or demanded by various neighbors and townspeople, and because she is stuck in her lifestyle but wants to get out. The title of this short story is cleverly ambiguous, allowing the renegade to refer to both characters.
Mrs. Walpole takes very personally the various inhumane suggestions of how to cure Lady of her penchant for killing chickens. She finally breaks when she hears her own children gleefully describing yet another way to kill Lady. Unlike her family members or neighbors, Mrs. Walpole correctly perceives that evil and brutality are barely concealed behind the curtain of civility. Though the townspeople are ordinary—a woman who loves to make donuts (Mrs. Nash) or the grocer (Mr. Kittredge)—they harbor the potential for murder. Mrs. Walpole is horrified as she realizes that even within the seeming haven of her domestic setting (her home, the town), she is vulnerable to the townspeople's cruelty.
At the end of the story, Mrs. Walpole must escape her house, where her twins are discussing a way of killing Lady. The house serves as the concrete symbol of her stagnant domestic identity, another theme common to various Jackson works (such as "Like Mother Used to Make"). By exiting her house, Mrs. Walpole symbolically attempts to escape the confines of her domesticity. But even in the fresh air, the village stifles her, and she feels as though she were caught in a spiked collar, about to be decapitated. This imagery completes the metaphor of Lady for Mrs. Walpole's character.
The external conflict in "The Renegade" clearly pertains to Lady's killing of chickens and the necessity of Mrs. Walpole handling this problem. The antagonists are all of the townspeople, even members of Mrs. Walpole's family, who devise ways to control Lady's behavior or kill her. Again, this conflict surrounding Lady is an allegory for Mrs. Walpole's personal struggle living among the small-minded townspeople.
Jackson herself struggled to fit in with fellow villagers in the small Vermont town in which she lived and raised her family. She depicts this struggle through various fictional works, including this one and "Flower Garden." Mrs. Walpole encounters difficulties conforming to the expectations of the townspeople, as they assume that killing Lady is the only and the most optimal option. Unwilling to do so, Mrs. Walpole also feels restricted, even threatened, by her neighbors and their wishes.
When the Walpole twins return home, the dog "leaped up and jumped on them, welcoming them as though they were the aliens and she the native to the house" (64). Since Mrs. Walpole is analogous to Lady, this statement suggests that Mrs. Walpole is in fact the alien in her own house. Her husband's behavior towards her is perfunctory. "He waved briefly to her and she nodded at him" (58). That is, the Walpoles do not display much affection for one another. In fact, Mr. Walpole's presence is barely noticeable in the story. He is only another domestic responsibility that Mrs. Walpole must handle before she can take some time for herself. The twins do not display much affection towards their mother either. Again, Mrs. Walpole is alienated within her own family and in her own home.
Furthermore, Jackson's anthropomorphic description of Lady serves to highlight her symbolic relation to Mrs. Walpole. When Lady returns to the house, she "came in quietly, harmlessly, as though she had spent the morning frolicking on the grass with her friends" (63). Later, Lady regards Jack Walpole "affectionately." By humanizing Lady, Jackson relates the dog even more closely to Mrs. Walpole.
Jackson's trademark irony is also present in "The Renegade." She describes how "Mrs. Walpole's first impulse was to scold [the dog], to hold her down and beat her for the deliberate, malicious pain she had inflicted, the murderous brutality a pretty dog like Lady could keep so well hidden in their home" (64). Even she has a murderous first impulse in the face of a challenge to the existing order. Still, Lady's penchant for killing chickens is an animal instinct, not "deliberate" or "malicious." The neighbors and townspeople, for their part, display deliberate malice as they plot ways to kill Lady. Behind their veneer of civilization and friendliness, they are the ones who hide their true brutality.