The wealthy 49-year-old Paul Dorrance, concerned about his health, summons his doctor and a cancer specialist for an examination. They pronounce him healthy, though in need of a rest from work, and Paul begins to ponder a life of renewed vigor, perhaps in marriage with a younger woman who would bear him children. Then he discovers on the floor a piece of paper containing the diagnosis of cancer.

He believes the doctors have deceived him, and his elation turns to self-pity and gloom. In that mood he decides to propose to Eleanor, his mistress of fifteen years whom he had previously decided not to marry, for companionship in the difficult time ahead. He proposes to her the same day as the consultation, without telling her of the diagnosis (even though she knows he saw the doctors).

She accepts his proposal, and she is not deterred when he reveals the harsh prognosis. Several years later Eleanor dies of a heart attack, and Paul soon discovers that on the fatal day of the consultation she . . . had done a certain thing [which readers will want to discover for themselves] that trumps Paul's egotism and manipulativeness in the relationship.


This is a sensitive and complexly rendered story of the negotiation of the image of death by the partners in a long-term liaison, each of whom uses it deceptively to gain something from the other. It also provides a fine short study, through Paul's intimate point of view, of the evolution of a patient's self-image in response to changing medical diagnoses. In its emphasis on the psychological and domestic reverberations of death, this story parallels D. H. Lawrence's Odour of Chrysanthemums (see this database).

Primary Source

The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, vol. 2



Place Published

New York




R. W. B. Lewis

Page Count