Hilda Clarence, 35, has been a resident of New York City for twelve years. She moved to New York from a small town upstate with ambitions of becoming a dancer. Upon moving to New York, she worked as a stenographer to support herself and eventually gave up on her aspiration to dance professionally. However, Miss Clarence plays up, in correspondence with her friends from home, a more glamorous lifestyle. She prides herself on her accomplishments and independence.
Responding to an ad regarding an available apartment and furniture in The Villager, Miss Clarence searches for an apartment on the fourth floor of a building. When she arrives at the apartment, she discovers a note left by the owner, Nancy Roberts, which indicates that Miss Roberts is not at home, but Miss Clarence is free to enter the apartment and inspect the furniture.
Miss Clarence lets herself into the apartment, which she considers quite dirty, particularly the kitchen and bathroom. She also does not approve of the furniture, which does not match her own apartment. “[T]he thought of introducing any of this shiny maple frightened her” (42). In a stack of books, Miss Clarence discovers a book of modern dance photographs and wonders if Nancy Roberts is also a dancer.
The phone rings. Mr. Roberts calls for his wife, and Miss Clarence identifies herself as a potential buyer of their furniture. Mr. Roberts requests that she tell Nancy to return his call, and also informs her that they are moving because he has the opportunity to go to Paris. After hanging up, Miss Clarence flips through the book of dance photographs and tries to imitate a pose, feeling the strain in her body as she does so.
The door opens, and a man named Harris enters. He too is responding to the ad regarding the furniture. Harris assumes that Miss Clarence owns the apartment and is the seller; she does not correct him. When Harris asks her about her profession, Miss Clarence claims that she is a dancer. She also lies to him when she claims that she and her husband, Artie, are moving to Paris. Harris finds none of the furniture to his liking and leaves. Miss Clarence closes the door after him and leaves a message for Miss Roberts, indicating that she is not interested in the furniture and passing along Arthur’s message. She collects her belongings and leaves, still aching from the ballet pose she attempted earlier.
Hilda Clarence is the epitome of a female Jackson protagonist who is reaching middle age, is unmarried, and finds herself perpetually dissatisfied and lonely, not to mention disappointed with the course of her life and career. As discussed in the analysis of "The Daemon Lover," Clarence's status as an unmarried woman has negative connotations: she is already 35, relatively old to be unmarried according to American social standards in the middle of the twentieth century. Clarence first arrived in New York years earlier from a small town with the ambition of becoming a successful dancer. However, she never realized this ambition and instead became a stenographer. This is one of her greatest disappointments in life, never becoming a dancer but resigning herself to an unfulfilling career.
However, Clarence carries herself as successful and worldly to maintain her pride: "when she wrote to her old friends at home she referred to herself as a 'Village die-hard'" (40). Internally unhappy, Clarence goes through the motions of her life and cares too much about seeming a certain way. For example, she carries a Stendhal novel "which she had read enthusiastically up to page fifty and only carried now for effect" (40). She prides herself on her independence in New York, particularly when she compares herself to girlfriends from her small hometown, and still attends the occasional dance recitals, perhaps to maintain the illusion that she is still a dancer.
At the Robertses' apartment, when Clarence finds the book of dance photographs, she clings to this tiny and possibly inconsequential detail of the Robertses' lifestyle to identify herself with Mrs. Roberts. She attempts a dance pose to assure herself that she can, but she only becomes sore. Miss Clarence's feeble attempt to reclaim her glory as a dancer serves as a metaphor for the attempt at a better life about which she fantasizes. The call she receives from Mr. Roberts reinforces her belief that Mrs. Roberts leads a better life than she does. First, Mrs. Roberts is married; second, she has the opportunity to move to Paris with her husband. Finally, Mrs. Roberts is originally from Chicago, which is also a city of better repute than Clarence's no-name hometown. Due to the perception that Mrs. Roberts's life is enviable, Clarence implicitly takes her place upon Mr. Harris's arrival.
Like the Mr. Harris from "Like Mother Used to Make," this Harris makes the natural assumption, upon entering the apartment, that the first person he sees is the apartment owner. And like David and Marcia from the same story, Clarence does not bother to correct him and is thus complicit in the identity swap. Just as the dance pose causes her physical pain, pretending to Mr. Harris that she is in fact Mrs. Roberts is also straining. The fact that Mr. Harris does not realize that Clarence is in fact not Mrs. Roberts is an example of dramatic irony (readers are aware of the mix-up).
When Mr. Harris leaves, the departure of his sinister presence coincides with Clarence's discarding of her sinister attempt to usurp Mrs. Roberts's life. She quickly returns to her original identity, armed with her Stendhal novel, but the strain of her pretense is felt physically: "Her shoulders ached" (45).
Hilda Clarence's conflict, as with the narrator of "The Daemon Lover," lies primarily within her mind, within her own discontent and dissatisfaction with her life. However, her conflict remains unresolved, as the story contains no true climax in which she directly addresses the problem by altering her lifestyle or situation for the better. Miss Clarence's discontent remains, with the added strain of having pretended to be Mrs. Roberts to Mr. Harris. Faking her identity to Mr. Harris is only a brief reprieve for Miss Clarence, not a solution. She leaves the apartment just as she came, carrying only her original possessions, including the Stendhal novel she uses to appear more worldly than she actually is.