Simon arrives at the Governor’s house and meets the Governor’s wife, who looks at him with a particular expression which he knows means “she is about to make him an unsolicited gift of her symptoms”—likely of a thyroid disease, he suspects. He thinks about the effect that his medical training has on women; Simon believes that women crave his medical knowledge, “knowledge with a lurid glare to it; knowledge gained through a descent into the pit.” He thinks of himself as “one of the dark trio—the doctor, the judge, the executioner,” who share “the powers of life and death.”
Simon’s opinion of himself as being one of an exclusive trio that holds the powers of both life and death is evidence of his high opinion of the medical profession. This stands in direct contrast with the behavior of not only other physicians such as Dr. Bannerling but of Simon himself, who seems more interested in the status of his profession—and the ability it affords him to exercise power over women—than in the responsible, respectful practice of medicine. This passage is also important because, over the course of the novel, Atwood will show (especially through her use of flower imagery) that the characters who actually embody the powers of both life and death are actually women.
The Governor’s wife introduces Simon to Mrs. Quennell, a well-known Spiritualist and the leader of the weekly meetings the Governor’s wife hosts at her home. Mrs. Quennell then introduces Simon to a Dr. Jerome DuPont. Simon snidely thinks that the people who practice Spiritualism, which involves communing with the dead, would be committed to an asylum “if [they] were not so well-to-do.”
This passage introduces several movements of historical importance, demonstrating the tension that exists in Simon’s society over not only the causes of mental illness but also the most effective ways to commune with and heal people’s spirits, whether alive or dead. Simon’s reflection that Spiritualists should be deemed mentally unstable suggests, yet again, his deeply entrenched prejudice against women, since, as Atwood points out in her afterward to the novel, Spiritualism was one of the few movements at this time that afforded women positions of leadership.
Simon and Dr. DuPont discuss DuPont’s work; he characterizes himself not as a Spiritualist but as a neuro-hypnotist. The men converse about the nature of the mind, and they also discuss Simon’s approach to his work with Grace (with Mrs. Quennell piping up to invite Simon to one of her weekly “spiritual Thursdays” meetings). Miss Lydia, one of the Governor’s daughters, arrives to ask Simon if he has seen the Governor’s wife’s scrapbook, and Simon is relieved for the excuse to leave the conversation.
Simon and Dr. DuPont’s conversation further explores the real historical conversation around mental health that was ongoing at the time the novel is set. Simon’s feeling of annoyance at Mrs. Quennell and the Reverend’s focus on the spiritual aspect of “sanity” is noteworthy, because his conviction that the spirit is of little importance will be challenged in a major way later in the novel.
Simon and Lydia peruse the scrapbook, which contains newspaper clippings of crimes. Lydia flirts with Simon, who thinks ruefully about his mother’s indefatigable attempts to get him married. Eventually Reverend Verringer arrives and Lydia departs.
This passage evokes Simon’s ongoing conflict with his mother over the question of his marriage. Simon enjoys flirting with Lydia, but feels frustrated at his mother’s attempts to settle him in a respectable marriage, because he thinks such a life would be a sexless and boring one.
Left alone, Simon finds himself thinking of Grace, comparing her with Lydia. He thinks Grace, in comparison with the photo he’s seen of her, “is now more than pretty. Or other than pretty.” He reflects on a conversation he had with Grace several days ago, in which he urged her to be frank with him. She replied that she had no reason not to be, saying, “I was never a lady, Sir, and I’ve already lost whatever reputation I ever had.” Simon asked if Grace cares about his good opinion of her, and she replied that she has already been judged. “Rightly or wrongly does not matter,” she added. “People want a guilty person.” Grace continued sewing and Simon recalls that, as he watched her thread her needle, “he felt as if he was watching her undress, through a chink in the wall; as if she was washing herself with her tongue, like a cat.”
This passage firmly establishes the fact that Simon views his conversations with Grace in sexualized terms; his attempts to draw her out through conversation are erotically charged in his mind. This passage is also important for what it reveals about Grace: her conviction that her reputation has already been irreparably damaged seems to give her a kind of freedom—at least in Simon’s eyes. Grace’s comment that “people want a guilty person” will also complicate her future conversations with Simon, as it is possible Grace is deliberately conforming to people’s idea of her. Seeing Grace through Simon’s eyes is thus a means for the reader to more critically evaluate her narration in later chapters.