Too Bad is the second story in Dorothy Parker’s Complete Stories. Like other Parker stories, this one examines the way things look and compares them to the way things really are. In this case, the story examines the breakup of Grace and Ernest Weldon, a couple married for seven years when suddenly they announce their separation. The story is written in third-person, past tense, with a slightly odd story structure: The first and third sections, both relatively short compared to the middle section, are written from a past that has happened after the announced separation and focus on two friends of the Weldons, and their reaction to the news. The middle section dips further back in time, to a single night in the marriage of Grace and Ernest. In this middle section, Parker weaves in and out of the true thoughts and feelings of Grace and Ernest, contrasting the nagging annoyances with their outward actions.
“My dear,” Mrs. Marshall said to Mrs. Ames, “I never was so surprised in my life. Never in my life. Why, Grace and I were like that–just like that.”
She held up her right hand, the upstanding first and second fingers rigidly close together, an illustration. Mrs. Ames shook her head sadly, and offered the cinnamon toast.
Mrs. Marshall and Mrs. Ames are gossiping about friends, Grace and Ernest Weldon, who are separating. It is a shock. Everyone says so. If there had been one happy couple in their social circle, common opinion was that the Weldons were that couple.
The narration takes us to the domestic life of the Weldons, in the time before their separation. They have moved into a new apartment, and signed a long-term lease. Mrs. Weldon–Grace–is a housewife shoe doesn’t quite fit the role, though she isn’t sure just why. She doesn’t have grand ideas of some other life, but she hasn’t quite figured this one out, either.
…she was always a bit bewildered as to how one went about performing those tiny miracles that make all the difference in the world to a room…But the feat of making all the difference in the world, so Mrs. Weldon had always heard, was not a thing to be left to servants. Touch-giving was a wife’s job.
Grace doesn’t like the apartment much. There are some things about it she hates, even. On the surface, it is everything a home should be, but she can’t shake the nagging feeling that little things are missing that would transform it into something better, something more substantial.
After all, what was the use of fussing? Probably there would always be drawbacks, wherever they lived.
Her husband has the same attitude about the place: There is no one perfect place, so why worry too much about the little things that he doesn’t like? Ernest feels that if Grace doesn’t seem to notice the bad things about the apartment–the narrow hallway and the lack of light in the dinning room–then those things must not matter much. When he comes home from work, the couple goes through their daily domestic performance–a sort of dance of “how was your day” and “oh it was fine” that never really touches on anything deeper than common courtesy. They gloss over the real content of their day and turn their attention to the evening newspapers as they wait for dinner. It is all smiles and routine words, repeated over and over, for the seven years of their marriage. Grace struggles to think of something interesting to talk about, and fails.
She looked at him, and shook her head despondently. He did not see, behind the paper; nor did she see that he was not reading.
Neither says or does the things they really feel. She is bored by the news, and resents how Ernest can read through one paper and then pick up another filled with the same news and give it his full attention as if it were all fresh and new, so she tells him she is so comfortable in her chair, and wouldn’t he like to be a dear and get her handkerchief for her? Of course, he does so with a smile, but inside he’s not happy.
The way to ask people to fetch handkerchiefs, he thought as he went back to his chair, was to ask them to do it, and not try to make them think that you were giving them a treat. Either come right out and ask them, would they or wouldn’t they, or else get up and get your handkerchief yourself.
When dinner is announced, there is another suppressed moment when Ernest tells Grace to go on in to dinner while he washes up.
She looked after him, and something like a volcanic eruption took place within her. You’d think that just one night–just one little night–he might go and wash before dinner was announced.
But, of course, she says nothing. She puts on a smile and “cheerfully” waits to begin her soup until he joins her. They both claim to enjoy the tomato soup, though by this point the characters have proven themselves to be unreliable in their words. Grace is baffled by trying to find things to talk about. She’s seen other couples talking “animatedly” but can’t imagine what topics they might discuss. She never has enough time to say everything she wants to say to friends, but it isn’t that way with Ernest. She blames him.
Even when she and Ernest had another couple in to dinner or bridge, they both talked and laughed easily, all evening long. But as soon as the guests said good-night and what an awfully nice evening it had been, and the door closed behind them, there the Weldons were again, without a word to say to each other.
It had been this way before they were married, too, but Grace thought it would improve. Seven years and it hadn’t, and she hasn’t gotten used to that. It has only become MORE annoying, she realizes. She feels like a hostess at a party where the guests aren’t enjoying themselves.
It makes you nervous and self-conscious, and you talk desperately about tomato soup, and say things like “daffy-down-dilly.” [Instead of daffodil, which had happened earlier in the story.]
They almost have a discussion, a REAL discussion, about how they really feel about pie, but not quite. They are right on the edge of revealing something true, even if it is about something as silly as pie, but it doesn’t happen. The rest of the evening is filled with trivialities and the every-day routine. Grace realizes that this is how almost every night has gone, and how their nights will continue to go into the future.
In a year, three hundred of their evenings were like this. Seven times three hundred is more than two thousand.
It is unsaid, but the reader can feel that this math is a breaking point for Grace.
We are returned to the two gossips–Mrs. Marshall and Mrs. Ames–who bookend this story. They wonder if there was another woman, or perhaps even another man. What else could explain such a happy couple’s sudden split? The idea of another woman or man is absurd. They decide there is no logical reason to give. The separation is just “too bad.”
(Editor’s Note: You can find even more posts about Dorothy Parker’s story, You Were Perfectly Fine, by checking out the Dorothy Parker category tag.)