1. The story is addressed to one of several well-meaning persons (a teacher?) who nudge the mother with implied criticism (she doesn’t take enough time; she doesn’t smile enough at Emily). But the larger implied you is people in general, including us as readers, whose disapproving, uncomprehending looks make her try to explain, to justify herself, to come to terms with the past.
2. By the age of eighteen the narrator had married, had a child, been deserted by the father, and forced into a succession of menial jobs forcing her to thwart the child’s need for security and affection. There is the sour smell of poverty. There is a strong sense of being trapped, of being helpless while bitterly aware that the economic plight of the parent is stunting the child’s development. A sense of guilt (remembering the “clogged weeping” of a child abandoned during the day by her working mother) struggles with the sense of having done the best under the circumstances.
3. Ironically, the well-meaning teacher and old man are of no real help, any more than the irresponsible absconding father.
4. The mother is bitter toward institutions that are insensitive to the real needs of those they serve. The mother calls nursery schools “parking places for children” where they suffer “the fatigue of the long day, and the laceration of group life.” Children who are victimized by other children are ridiculed by the teachers. The convalescent home is superficially in good order, with well-tended grounds, children wearing bright bows, and “sleek young women” from the society pages holding festive fund-raisers. However, the reality behind the facade is that of a prison: Rules are rigidly enforced. Children see their parents from a high balcony; they are allowed no personal belongings (not even letters); the poor food makes them lose weight. Emily changes radically there: “I used to try to hold and love her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after a while she’d push away….Food sickened her, and I think much of life too.” The schools Emily attends later reward “the glib and quick,” and since Emily is neither, the “overworked and exasperated” teachers label (and neglect) her as a “slow learner.”
5. Emily was “thin and dark and foreign-looking when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look” like Shirley Temple. She grows up with deep-seated fears and with an inability to make friends. She has been branded a “slow learner” and tries to escape the trauma of school by feigning illness. She bears a “corroding resentment” toward her sister Susan who “is everything in appearance and manner Emily is not.” Her gifts show when on the stage she experiences for a time the recognition and approval she has long been denied. The mother recognizes and blames herself for her natural preference for the more attractive, more outgoing younger child.
6. The resentment against harsh, unfeeling, repressive institutions and the feeling of bitterness at being forced to seem lacking in love give the story a strong emotional force.
7. The attitude is one of acceptance of lowered expectations rather than of militancy and rebellion. The child has been denied her full potential (like many others); the mother’s hope is that Emily will make the best of what she has. The attitude of resignation is one that the story has led up to with many minor and major defeats and disappointments.
8. This story is an example of tightly defined limited point of view. During most of the story, we seem to be limited to the mother’s perceptions and explanations. For example, the representatives of the institutions never have a chance to present their side of the story or to defend themselves against the mother’s charges.