Barbara and Ivy sit in the dining room. Ivy is dressed, but Barbara is still in pajamas. Ivy asks Barbara if Violet is clean. Barbara says she is—“moderately.” Ivy says she’s nervous, and Barbara realizes that Ivy wants to tell Violet about her and Little Charles’s relationship tonight. Barbara begs her sister not to mess up the uneasy rhythm she and Violet have settled into, but Ivy says it’s now or never—she’s leaving for New York tomorrow. Barbara tells Ivy it’s not a good idea for her and Little Charles to take things any further. There are lots of fish in the sea, she says, and she advises Ivy to “rule out the one single man in the world” she’s related to. Ivy says she loves the man she’s related to, but Barbara tells Ivy that love is a “crock of shit.”
In spite of all the pain and suffering of recent weeks, Ivy seems oddly optimistic about the prospect of revealing the truth of her relationship with Little Charles to Violet. Barbara is clearly being torn apart by having to keep the secret of Little Charles’s true parentage from her sister—she does not want to bring Ivy any more harm but cannot let her proceed any further with the relationship, and is biding her time as she decides what to do with the delicate, explosive information she has.
Johnna brings dinner in from the kitchen—she has made catfish. After she exits once again, Ivy asks why Barbara thinks Ivy shouldn’t tell Violet the truth. Barbara tells Ivy she needs to rethink her entire relationship with Charles, before urging her to be quiet and eat her catfish. Ivy says she has hoped against hope for years that someone would come into her life, but before she can finish her tragic monologue, Barbara cuts her off and tells her to eat her fish.
Barbara is callous and short with her sister—who only wants reassurance, empathy, and guidance from Barb. Ivy still believes in the power of love—despite all the abuse she has suffered, she is still an idealist, but Barbara, at this point in the play, is completely jaded and full of contempt of any kind of positive thinking whatsoever.
Violet walks into the room, and Barbara calls for Johnna to bring Violet a plate. Violet insists she isn’t hungry, but Barbara tells her that she needs to eat. Johnna brings the food in and tells the women that she’s going to eat upstairs in her room. Barbara tells Violet to eat her fish, but Violet refuses. Barbara and Violet grow belligerent with one another and begin cursing and shouting back and forth. Ivy interjects, telling Violet that she needs to talk to her about something. Barbara tells Ivy, repeatedly, to shut up, but Ivy keeps pressing the issue. As Ivy continues trying to reveal the truth and Violet complains about not wanting to eat, Barbara repetitiously tells her mother and her sister to shut up and eat their fish.
In this passage, Barbara is trying desperately to exert control over her mother and her sister. They will not listen to her, though, and Barbara understands that in thinking she could affect any change in these women—in anyone in her family—by staying behind on the Plains, she was only deceiving herself. Barbara and Violet have been the two great wordsmiths of the play, but in this scene, Barbara has no linguistic faculties whatever, and neither does Violet. Both have been so worn down, exhausted, and traumatized that they have no rhetorical advantage over one another and are simply competing to see whose voice can be loudest.
Ivy, frustrated, throws her plate on the floor, and it smashes. Barbara asks if they’re all going to start “breaking shit now,” and says that she can “break shit” too—she throws a vase off the sideboard onto the floor. Violet then throws her plate to the floor, too. Barbara calls for Johnna to come clean up a “little spill” in the dining room. Ivy begins to tell Violet her secret, referring to Little Charles as “Charles.” Barbara says that if Ivy doesn’t refer to him as “Little Charles” Violet won’t know who she’s talking about. As Ivy gets closer and closer to breaking through Barbara’s interruptions, Violet finishes Ivy’s sentence for her—“Little Charles and you,” she says, “are brother and sister.”
Words and their meanings have devolved completely, and the Weston women resort to physical violence to make themselves seen and heard—even if they are still unable to make themselves understood. The glass shattering symbolically foretells the “shattering” information Violet is about to deliver—as the secret hits Ivy’s ears for the first time, there is the sense that something has indeed broken.
Ivy, shocked and believing that Violet is delirious, tries to go ahead with her confession, but Violet is in her own world, and continues speaking. She reveals that she has always known the truth about Little Charles—no one slips anything by her. Barbara urges Ivy not to listen to Violet, but Violet keeps talking. She reveals she knew the whole time Beverly and Mattie Fae were having an affair, and says that Beverly “tore himself up” over Little Charles’s true parentage until the day of his death.
The realization that Violet has known her sister and her husband’s darkest secret all along adds another layer of depth to the source of Violet’s pain and thus her addictive tendencies.
Ivy is devastated. Violet says it’s time the girls knew: they are getting older, and “never know when someone might need a kidney.” Violet says, though, that the sensitive Little Charles should be protected from the truth. Violet looks at Ivy and asks how Ivy found out. Ivy looks back and forth between her mother and her sister, and then lurches away from the table. She asks why Violet would have told her such a thing—Violet asks why she cares. Ivy accuses Barbara and Violet of being monsters and runs from the dining room.
This is yet another moment in the play which is slightly inscrutable and left up to the actors’ interpretation. It could be that Violet truly has no knowledge of Ivy and Little Charles’s affair—or it could be that this scene is played as if Violet is very obviously feigning ignorance in an attempt to further belittle and ridicule the already-infantilized Ivy.
Barbara follows Ivy into the living room, begging Ivy to listen to her. She reveals that Mattie Fae told her the truth earlier, but she didn’t know what to do with what she’d learned. Ivy screams that she won’t let Barbara change her story and runs out to the porch. Barbara follows her. Ivy says she plans to go to New York anyway—she assures Barbara that she will never see her again. Barbara begs Ivy to see that the revelation is not her fault—it was their mother who told her. Ivy proclaims that there’s no difference, and then leaves.
In the tragic and dramatic culmination of Ivy’s arc, she clings to the tattered shreds of her own desperate grab at agency through her relationship with Little Charles. Ivy insists that the knowledge she has just been confronted with changes nothing, but the impact of this horrible truth on what her ultimate decision will be remains unknown. As she departs, Ivy attempts to hurt Barbara as badly as she herself has been hurt—by telling Barbara that there is no longer any difference between her and the abusive Violet.
Barbara, in a daze, reenters the house, where Violet is lighting a cigarette. She tells Barbara that they “couldn’t let” Ivy and Little Charles run off together—Ivy’s place is here. Barbara tells Violet that Ivy said she plans on leaving anyway, but Violet predicts that Ivy won’t go. Ivy’s sweet, Violet says, but she’s not strong like the two of them.
Violet’s blasé attitude upon Barbara’s reentry to the house suggests that perhaps Violet did know all along that Little Charles and Ivy were having an affair—either that, or she overheard the explosive argument on the porch and is either so high or so brain-damaged and disconnected that the information has little effect on her.
Barbara expresses her surprise at the fact that Violet always knew about Mattie Fae and Beverly. Violet says that though she’s never told either of them she knew about it, Beverly always “knew [she] knew.” Violet says that if she had had a chance to talk to Beverly “at the end,” she would’ve told him not to kill himself over Little Charles and all the “ancient history” between himself and Mattie Fae. Violet says if she had reached Beverly at the motel, she would’ve told him that feeling “cast down” didn’t let him off the hook.
As Violet rambles on and on about all she would have done or could have done for Beverly, she goes a bit too far, and reveals yet another horrific secret in the process. Again, it is unclear whether Violet is high or simply so damaged from the substance abuse that she has truly lost her mind.
Barbara asks Violet what she means by “if [she] had reached him at the motel.” Violet admits to calling the Country Squire Motel, but not getting a hold of Beverly—she assumed it was too late, and he’d checked out. She called the motel Monday, after she’d emptied the safety deposit box. She admits that she probably should’ve called sooner—or called the police, or called Ivy—but she and Beverly had an arrangement. She reminds Barbara that to people of their generation, who never had any money growing up, money is important.
This revelation—that Violet knew where Beverly was staying and had the chance to contact him, but didn’t because she wanted to get into their safety deposit box—horrifies Barbara, even as Violet attempts to justify her actions by again invoking the pain and scarcity of her own upbringing.
Barbara asks Violet how she knew where Beverly was, and Violet answers blithely that Beverly left a note saying he could be reached at the Country Squire Motel. She did call him, she reminds Barbara, after she got into the safety deposit box. Barbara points out that if Violet could’ve stopped Beverly from killing himself, she wouldn’t have needed to get into the safety deposit box. Violet replies that hindsight is twenty-twenty.
This dark and painful moment is given an instance of levity as Violet comically but cruelly says she would do things differently if she had a second chance—when of course she has effectively forfeited her husband’s life for a little bit of his money.
Barbara asks if Beverly’s note said, or implied, that he was planning on killing himself. Violet doesn’t answer at first. When Barbara presses her, she says only that if she’d had her wits about her, she would’ve done things differently. Barbara tells Violet that she is “fucked-up.”
Though the exact details of the note aren’t revealed, this moment implies that Violet knew Beverly intended to kill himself, but was too angry, money-hungry, or simply intoxicated to care.
Violet calls Barbara a “smug little ingrate” and tells her that one of the reasons Beverly killed himself was Barbara. She tells Barbara that Beverly never would have killed himself if Barbara had been around. Beverly and Violet, abandoned with nothing but the realization that they had “wasted [their] lifetimes” devoting themselves to the care and comfort of daughters who left them behind, turned against one another. Violet tells Barbara that Beverly’s blood is as much on Barbara’s hands as it is her own.
Violet does not want to admit her complicity in Beverly’s demise, and so she attempts to drag Barbara into the equation with her. She blames Barbara for abandoning the two of them and leaving them with a sense of futility, anger, and impotence. Seeing how Violet has been able to influence Barbara time and time again throughout the play by playing to her emotions, it seems as if Barbara may, against all odds, fall for this final manipulation.
Violet goes into the study, muttering about how Beverly did “this” to weaken her, and to make her prove her character. She reveals that she would have waited to call him until after she got the safety deposit box no matter what the note had said, and calls to Beverly that she is stronger than him at last. Barbara agrees. She tells Violet that Violet is the strong one, and then kisses her, collects her own rental car keys, and leaves.
As Violet rails against her dead husband for leaving her—and for testing her mettle—Barbara realizes the extent of her mother’s cruelty and vindictiveness. Seeing that there is no help for this woman, Barbara concedes that Violet is “stronger” after all—strong enough to live on her own. Her last act of affection towards her mother is sad and poignant, and feels like a very final goodbye.
Violet calls after Barbara and staggers through the house, pursuing her as Barbara collects her purse and car keys and goes. Violet cannot catch up to Barbara though, and winds up in the kitchen, turning around and around, disoriented, trying to find her daughter. She starts calling for Ivy, too, and then Beverly. She winds up in the living room, where she puts on the Eric Clapton record “Lay Down, Sally” and dances for a moment before attacking the machine, destroying the record.
As Violet realizes that she has been abandoned by everyone she cared for, she turns to “Lay Down, Sally” for comfort—but perhaps the song’s painful lyrics about the desire to stave off abandonment for just a while longer are too much for her. She flies into a rage, attacking the thing which once brought her joy.
Violet calls for Johnna, and then goes to the stairway. She begins crawling up on all fours, calling for Johnna again and again all the way to the attic. She enters Johnna’s room and crawls into Johnna’s lap. Johnna soothes Violet while Violet mumbles “and then you’re gone, and then you’re gone”—over and over. Johnna herself begins intoning a line from a T.S. Eliot poem: “This is the way the world ends.”
Violet is completely alone—seemingly for good. She has alienated and pushed away—and as good as killed—everyone who mattered to her, and the only one left is Johnna. As Violet reminded all of her guests at Beverly’s funeral dinner, though, this is what Johnna is being paid to do. Johnna and Violet take up separate but related “mantras” and repeat them over and over as the play comes to a close. Violet’s reflects her profound loneliness, and Johnna’s reflects her state of being overwhelmed in the face of all that has befallen her in the short time since the Westons dragged her into their weird, wild world—which is, at present, seemingly coming to an end.