"Bunner Sisters," written in 1892 but not published until 1916 in Xingu and Other Stories, takes place in a shabby neighborhood in New York City. The two Bunner sisters, Ann Eliza the elder, and Evelina the younger, keep a small shop selling artificial flowers and small handsewn articles to Stuyvesant Square's "female population."

Ann Eliza gives Evelina a clock for her birthday. The clock leads the sisters to become involved with Herbert Ramy, owner of "the queerest little store you ever laid eyes on." Soon Ramy is a regular guest of the Bunner sisters, who realize that their "treadmill routine," once so comfortable, is now "intolerably monotonous." Ramy's appearance also begins to distance
the sisters from each other, as Ann Eliza notes pathetic signs of flirtation in Evelina. Ann Eliza decides to sacrifice her own hopes and yearnings for those of her younger sister.

In spite of Ramy's frequent visits to the Bunner sisters, his background remains shrouded to them; the sisters' naiveté blinds them to Ramy's unexplained absences, from which he returns with "dull eyes" and a face the color of "yellow ashes." Ramy proposes marriage to Ann Eliza because he is "too lonesome," but Ann Eliza refuses him and encourages him to marry
Evelina. At one point, Evelina's lack of a dowry jeopardizes the marriage, but Ann Eliza offers her sister the $200 she has laboriously saved, and Ramy marries Evelina. The couple move to St. Louis, where Ramy has great job opportunities, leaving Ann Eliza to run the shop. The shop deteriorates, and Ann Eliza must sell her possessions to stay alive.

Evelina's letters to her sister grow infrequent, then stop altogether. Ann Eliza's efforts to trace her sister fail, and she grows increasingly concerned about her fate, especially when she learns that Ramy has been fired from a previous position for "drug-taking." Then, one spring day Evelina returns to the shop, with health and spirit broken. She tells Ann Eliza of her married life, which included the death of her one-day-old infant and physical abuse from Ramy, who no longer could control his drug-taking. Evelina has come home to die, forcing Ann Eliza to recognize [f]or the first time in her life . . . the awful problem of the inutility of self-sacrifice."

Evelina dies; Ann Eliza, completely destitute, must leave the shop to search for some means of livelihood. The closing scenes of the novella indicate Ann Eliza's bleak fate: when she inquires about a position as saleslady in a little shop "fresh and gay and thriving" she is told that "We want a bright girl: stylish, and pleasant manners....Not over thirty." Ann Eliza leaves, "looking for another shop window with a sign in it."

Discussion Questions:

1. Why is the subject of time so prevalent in "Bunner Sisters," both in symbol and in setting?

2. Why does Wharton so carefully detail the relationships between women in the novella?

3. Why does Wharton place so much stress on Evelina's conversion to Catholicism in the closing chapters of the novella?

4. How does Wharton introduce and develop the theme of "the inutility of self-sacrifice" throughout the novella?

5. How convincing is Wharton's creation of a world that was alien to her as a member of New York's upper class?

--Contributed by Judith E. Funston, State University of New York, College at Potsdam