At the end of "The Key", a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the old lady who has been our main character lies down on her bed, feeling like she's under anesthesia. She then has a vision where she sees her long-dead husband, and...

They wandered through a space without a sky, without earth, a tunnel full of debris - the wreckage of a nameless structure - a corridor dark and winding, yet somehow familiar. They came to a region where two mountains met, and the passage between shone like sunset or sunrise. They stood there hesitating and even a little ashamed. It was like that night of their honeymoon when they went to Ellenville in the Catskills and were let by the hotel owner into their bridal suite. She heard the same words he had said to them then, in the same voice and intonation: "You don't need no key here. Just enter - and mazel tov."
(translation by the author and Evelyn Torton Beck)

What is happening here? Did Bessie die? Why is she having this vision?

1 Answer 1


Just a bit earlier in the story

‘Bessie went into her bedroom and lay down on the bed .There was a pressure on her breast and she felt like vomiting.’

The suggestion from the description given- of pressure on her breast and subsequent nausea – is that Bessie is having a heart attack.

‘Something heavy vibrated up from her feet to her chest. Bessie listened to it without alarm, only curious about the whims of the body; the super and the neighbour talked, and Bessie could not make out what they were saying. The same thing happened in the hospital before an operation –…”

She lapses into unconsciousness. Then she sees her dead husband :

‘Soon there was silence, and Sam appeared.’ ‘In her dream, Bessie knew that Sam was dead but that in some clandestine way he had managed to get away from the grave and visit her.’

From Bessie’s point of view, it seems to be a dream, but the question of the dead Sam’s presence raises another possibility

‘They wandered ….’ They stood there hesitating and even a little ashamed. It was like that night of their honeymoon.’

The reunited couple wander and then they are on the threshold of something new : I suspect this is the point when Bessie Realises ( as we do too) that this may no longer be a dream .

‘She heard the same words…’ ’You don’t need no key here. Just enter and - mazel tov .’

There is a sense of déjà vu for Bessie as the now reunited the couple have crossed the threshold into the afterlife together ( as they did on their honeymoon night in life ) .

So what is happening ? : my interpretation is that Elderly , infirm and arthritic Bessie ( with some degree of cognitive impairment /dementia with paranoid ideas/delusions and perhaps mental health issues ) -who has been living on her own (but struggling) since Sam passed away- after having had a heart attack ( brought on by her night out of home ) has peacefully died in her own bed in sleep and in the moments leading up to her death she realises that despite her misconceptions the apartment block superintendent and her neighbours do care for her and she is regarded as a valued part of the community, because to have her rise from her bed stretch into wakefulness ( perhaps if she remembers it- marvelling at her dream) and continuing her challenging existence of isolation , infirmity and medical comorbidity would be a poor way to end .

I think the ambiguous undeclared ending is an artful aesthetic and structural element not unlike that employed by Shakespeare at the end of Hamlet : this is a ‘ the rest is silence ‘ moment . It is for the reader to draw their own conclusions and stay engaged with the story right up to and even beyond its end .

To address your other two questions : Bessie dies . The vision is her passage into the after - life accompanied by her soul mate Sam .

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