Irene's family, owners of a successful cleaning business, built their lives "on the promise of whiteness," (p.23) believing wholeheartedly in the slogan "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." Irene's tragic flaw is her great beauty. In her youth, her family treated her like a product of one of their shops, an object that must remain unsullied and perfect in every way. Irene's family proved too shallow to perceive what lay just below the surface of their. "Look your best for Father," (p.51) admonished her Mother. The overabundance of attention made Irene feel special, and somehow different than her friends. It also gave her a complex which became a psychosis after Irene was raped by Frank Hancock, a "good sort" of fellow according to her parents.
A rape or some other type of crime against sexuality is a frequently used device in Swift's writing. An eventual madness results from Irene's rape, which develops into psychosomatic asthma. Instead of trying to find answers, her family sends her to an institution. The reaction of Irene's family is to be expected. When something they own is in some way "unclean," the only proper thing to do is to send it out. Neglecting to visit their daughter while she was in the asylum they acted just like someone who sends a suit off to the cleaners, returning to retrieve it only when it is "clean," hoping that this action will remedy a deeper fashion problem.
The institution itself is representative of such places in Swift's works. Clean cut hedge-rows, gravel paths, pleasant gardens -- all of these are common elements for the author. So are the "patients in striped bath-robes and ill-fitting jackets," (p.54) who seem to wander around endlessly. These patients are set pieces. Their stories are not important but their presence is necessary to create the atmosphere of a world within a world, a place where society can send its outcasts. Another common element is the orderlies. Some are friendly, some are indifferent, but they all exist to make the patients comfortable without necessarily trying to find a cure for their illnesses. Irene makes no comment about her treatment so that it seems as if it did not exist. She instead remembers sitting "in a grey easy chair by the window with my feet on a floor that was polished twice daily. I lifted my legs for the orderly to wield his mop and he swept on around me, so that I was marooned." (p.53)
Treatment for the ill in The Sweet Shop Owner is not stressed because the responsibility for illness lies not with the sick but with the cause, i.e. Hancock. The problems that Irene suffers plague her throughout her life. Hancock, although we do not know if he suffered from guilt after his encounter with Irene, later abuses his wife. The implication is that one must look deeper for solutions to problems, and there is no "institutional" method that can effectively deal with an individual's psyche. For Swift's characters, resolution must come from within.