The theme of identity is important in ‘ ‘Leaving the Yellow House” as Hattie strives toward some sort of self-understanding. Hattie has lived for decades under a cloud of self-deception. For instance, she pretends that her drinking is not as problematic as it is, and she pretends to care for India when she really feels that the other woman treats her like a servant. She blames her neighbor Pace for the disappearance of her dog when she killed the dog herself. After breaking her arm, Hattie realizes the extent of her reliance on other people, but she also realizes there are very few people, if any, whose assistance and love she can count on. This epiphany contributes to her attempts at self-exploration.
In reality, Hattie’s striving toward self-understanding makes little progress. She concludes that the house is her only meaningful possession and indeed the best part of her. Though she reflects on the people she has chased out of her life, such as Wick, she does not explore the inherent sadness of life mostly lived at odds with others. When Hattie writes her will, which is her attempt to take some kind of responsibility for herself, she deems none of her estranged family as good enough to inherit her house. Her true feeling about the house, and the life she has led, are revealed when she writes “because I only lately received what I have to give away, I can’t bear it.” With these words, Hattie demonstrates that only she is worthy of the house; thus, it is clear that she derives self-worth from the house.
Alienation and Loneliness
Hattie’s alienation from any sort of community and her loneliness form the essential elements of her character. Hattie lives alone in the yellow house. She used to share the house with India, another aging alcoholic, but it is clear from Hattie’s reflections that the relationship between the two women was not based on close ties but rather on mutual need: India needed someone to look after her, and Hattie needed someone to support her. The only neighbors with whom Hattie is on good terms are the Rolfes, yet she turns on them when she feels they are deserting her in her time of need; she believes they are selfish for vacationing when she needs their assistance. Hattie antagonizes Darly, the Pace’s ranch hand, to such an extent that he cannot even bring himself to apologize for the role he played in her accident. Amy Walters and Pace both agree to help her after her accident only if they will receive financial remuneration after her death, i.e., the deed to her house. Hattie has turned away Wick, her lover, for inconsequential reasons, but primarily because he is not as good as her former husband, who himself turned her away.
This irony underscores Hattie’s tenacious ability to cling to what has little worth even if she is left with nothing. Hattie had always dreamed of coming out west, but all she has sown in this land of adventure is loneliness and isolation. By the time she writes her will, Hattie recognizes her own state, referring to herself as “cast off and lonely.” Hattie’ s inability to will her house to anyone demonstrates her extreme isolation, for she feels that no one is worthy of it because there is no one in her life whom she loves or respects.
The poverty Hattie experiences is both monetary and spiritual. Hattie has very little money in the form of a small pension. Her primary asset is the yellow house, however, even the house does not truly represent much worth because she cannot sell it or rent it for a reasonable price. Hattie’s anxiety after she leaves the hospital is exacerbated by her inability to pay her medical bill and the knowledge that she has no way to raise the money. When both Amy Walters and Pace volunteer to take care of Hattie in return for ownership of her house after she dies, the instability that Hattie experiences because of her poverty is clearly demonstrated. These actions also underscore Hattie’s spiritual poverty. She is a woman whom people, with the exception of the Rolfes, will only help if they are getting something in return for it. In truth, this is only fair, for Hattie herself offers little to anyone else. She is judgmental, deceitful, and self-absorbed to the point of pettiness and clearly has been this way for some time. Hattie’s spiritual poverty is also apparent in her loneliness.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Saul Bellow, Published by Gale Group, 2001.