The Azaires’ home stands proudly on the boulevard du Cange, an unassuming street in the French city of Amiens. The street is surrounded by nature; gardens with a “wild, overgrown look,” numerous trees, and small canals which lead to the river Somme. The house is curiously built, with a strange shape and angles, and it has a “formidable front door.” The traffic leading to the house suggests that it is the home of a “substantial man.” The interior is plain and unassuming, and the strange shape of the house lends to mysterious rooms and passageways. It is “a place of unseen footsteps.”
The house on the boulevard du Cange is a reflection of René Azaire, the patriarch of the family, and his power. Like the front door, René is a “formidable” man, and according to his standing in society, quite “substantial.” The interior of the house is a reflection of René’s wife, Isabelle. She too is “mysterious” and “unassuming,” and Faulks’s comparison of Isabelle to the domestic sphere underscores the sexist society in which they live. The “wild” and “overgrown” gardens are evidence of nature and its indifference to human life, and leading to the river Somme (where the bloodiest battle of World War I will take place), the neglected gardens also foreshadow the future violence of war.
Stephen Wraysford unpacks his belongings from a metal trunk in one of the bedrooms. Like the rest of the house, the room is plain but tastefully decorated, and flowers sit in a vase on the dresser. He cleans up and dresses for dinner, but the house is huge and he is unsure of which door to go through. In his confusion, a maid directs him into the dining room.
Again, the interior of the home is a reflection of Isabelle. Stephen later notes that Isabelle is not beautiful, yet she is alluring and wears the latest fashions better than any other woman. Like the room, Isabelle is “plain but tastefully decorated.” The confusing floorplan of the house and Stephen’s inability to find the dining room makes his ease in locating the red room after he falls in love with Isabelle all the more significant.
The Azaires are already seated at the table. Madame Azaire stands up and her husband, René, introduces her quickly and dismissively. The children, Lisette, who is sixteen, and Grégoire, who is ten, are also present. It is quickly established that Stephen is twenty years old and has been sent by his employer to learn about the process of textile manufacturing from René, who owns two local factories. René is only forty years old but looks much older, and he has “an alert, humourless glare.”
The way in which René introduces Isabelle to Stephen is an example of René’s indifference to his wife. The fact that Isabelle stands when Stephen enters the room is also a reflection of their sexist society. Isabelle stands as a sign of respect and observation of Stephen’s standing as a man. René, who holds more power than Stephen on account of his age and class, does not stand to greet him.
René mentions that the laborers’ unions have made it difficult for him to run his business, and the workers are unhappy about new machinery that threatens to replace their labor. As Lisette flirts obviously with Stephen, Madame Azaire avoids eye contact with him. Just as dinner ends, the doorbell rings and Monsieur Bérard and his wife, Madame Bérard, are shown into the room by the maid.
René’s failure to recognize the needs of his workers is an example of his cruelty and immorality, and this, evidenced by Isabelle’s lack of eye contact and her future efforts to aid the striking dyers and their hungry families, is a major source of Isabelle’s dislike for her husband. Lisette’s flirty behavior foreshadows her later sexual advances toward Stephen.
The friends begin to talk over drinks, and Bérard tells René that the dyers employed by other factories have called a strike to begin the next day. René is upset by the strike; however, Bérard appears to enjoy delivering the bad news. Bérard begins small talk, and Stephen mentions he is from England.
Bérard is a self-important man, and he fiercely holds on to his place within the patriarchy. As the bearer of important news that René is unaware of, Bérard considers this proof of his superior standing in society—above even René.
Bérard and René are subtly critical of England. They are surprised when Stephen says that they have trains there, and they make mention of the constant rain and fog. Stephen remarks that last year it rained more in Paris than in London, but the men continue. They ask Stephen if he eats meat most days for breakfast, and when he says he does, they are incredulous.
As Frenchmen, Bérard and René consider themselves better than Stephen, an Englishman. Their opinions about their countries are false, much like their opinions about women, yet they continue to believe them and profess them as truth. René and Bérard’s power and superiority within patriarchal society are arbitrary and manufactured, and this interaction draws attention to this fact.
As the friends talk, birds can be heard singing from the garden. René mentions that he has a fondness for patriotic songs, such as “Marseillaise,” which the French troops sang as they went off to fight the Prussians. “What a day that must have been!” declares René. Bérard disagrees, claiming that when “art is put to practical ends it loses its essential purity.” Stephen says that any song that elicits an emotional response should be valued.
The birds singing in the garden reflect nature and its indifference to humankind. The evening has not been enjoyable for Stephen (or Isabelle), yet the birds sing on unaffected, just as they will during the darkest days of war. The mention of troops and patriotic songs reflects the future singing of British troops through French streets during World War I; however, the soldiers lack the enthusiasm that René imagines. Exhausted and war weary, the men’s singing “loses its essential purity,” just as Bérard says.
René suggests a game of cards, and Madame Azaire excuses herself, claiming that she has a “slight headache.” Madame Bérard is appropriately concerned, but René reassures her. “It’s just her nerves. Think nothing of it.” Bérard notes that Madame Azaire is “a delicate creature,” and René remarks on her “nervous temperament,” which in his opinion “signifies nothing.”
As the foursome play cards, talk turns to the dyers’ strike. René states that what the dyers really need is “someone to call their bluff.” He doesn’t believe that the strike will last long once they become hungry. Bérard warns René that as a town councilor, that may not be the smartest course of action. René quickly dismisses him.
This is more evidence of René’s cruelty and his questionable morality. He cares very little if the families of the dyers are suffering; instead, René would rather wait the workers out and secure the absolute best working agreement for himself and the other factory owners. The suffering of the workers’ families mirrors the suffering of soldiers’ families during the war. There is a greater tragedy beyond the initial death caused by war; the families are likewise affected.
Bérard and his wife soon leave, and it begins to rain. Stephen excuses himself to his room, where he sits and listens to the sounds of the night. An owl calls in the distance, and Stephen begins to write in his journal. He has kept the journal for five years now, and he encrypts his writing in a secret code, made possible by his extensive education in Greek and Latin. Stephen’s need for secrecy stems from his “natural openness and quick temper,” which often gets him into trouble. Stephen has learned “not to trust his responses, but to wait and be watchful.”
As an orphan, and later as an officer during the war, Stephen’s life is full of loss and pain, and his coded journals are an effort to hide his painful past. The coded journals reflect society’s broader efforts to cover up or obscure painful history. Additionally, his “quick temper” and distrust of his own actions implies humankind’s potential to commit terrible acts. Stephen is mindful of this danger, and his journal allows him to further reflect on his actions, which is in keeping with Faulks’s overall argument for the commemoration of history and war. Again, nature, in the form of rain and birdcalls, continues on with complete disregard for Stephen.
He is distracted from his writing by the sound of a woman’s voice. The sound is vague, but Stephen senses that something is wrong, and he sneaks down the stairs to investigate. He hears crying and the unmistakable sound of someone being struck. He recognizes Madame Azaire’s voice begging René, and Stephen clenches his fists in anger, before slipping back up the stairs to his room undetected.
Stephen senses that René is abusing Isabelle and it makes him angry, yet he does nothing. The status quo of patriarchal society gives this power to René, and even though Stephen knows it is wrong, he doesn’t says anything. Similarly, when Stephen is commanded to lead dozens of men to certain death during the war, he follows orders despite deep feelings to the contrary. Through Stephen’s tendency to go with the flow, Faulks illustrates how patriarchal power and violence are maintained within society.
Stephen returns to his journal entries. His journey from England, the train through France, and René Azaire and his children are all noted in the pages. Stephen has even mentioned Bérard and his wife, but he is surprised to discover that he has not mentioned Madame Azaire in the journal at all.
Stephen does not mention Isabelle in his journal because he is already falling in love with her. His avoidance is a form of self-preservation; if he doesn’t mention her, then he can’t be in love with her.
The next day, Stephen accompanies René to his factory, which is located in a poverty-stricken area of town called the Saint Leu quarter. He meets Meyraux, René’s senior man who acts as a messenger between René and his workers. Most of the factory workers are women, and they work mostly by hand, a process that Stephen considers “old-fashioned.”
It is highly ironic that most of René’s workers are women. He clearly does not respect women, yet they are responsible for making the bulk of his money. The fact that Stephen considers their work “old-fashioned” is evidence of women’s standing in a sexist society—modern machines are preferred over their work.
René informs Meyraux that Stephen is visiting from a textile company in Manchester, which happens to sell the same fabric as René for two-thirds of the price. Stephen’s company is one of René’s most important customers, and René hopes that they are considering investing in his own factory.
Despite his patriarchal power and importance, René’s control is slipping. He is in danger of losing his company due to cheaper foreign competitors, and because of this he resents Stephen.
Meyraux is suspicious of Stephen, and suspects that René is looking to import English workers and machinery, costing French jobs. Meyraux notes that what the industry really needs, instead of less workers and more machinery, is more investment and understanding on behalf of owners.
Meyraux is well versed in René’s cruelty and lax morals. René’s employees are on the verge of a strike because René has neglected them and treated them poorly, much like he treats Isabelle.
René claims he doesn’t have any money to invest in the business, and instead can “only retrench.” René proposes cutting the pay of salaried employees by one percent and raising output by five percent. In addition, he will reclassify any employees not qualified to run machinery as “untrained workers” and adjust their pay accordingly.
René’s proposal to pay his employees less while expecting them to work harder and produce more is further proof of his cruelty and desire for power. The use of the word “retrench” to describe René’s efforts to economize carries connotations of the upcoming war, which is fought mainly in the trenches.
Meyraux is calm and unsurprised, and remarks that René is offering his workers less than the striking dyers. René calls their strike “nonsense” and demands to know who is behind it. “What is behind it,” says Meyraux, “are attempts of the owners to use slave labour at diminishing levels of pay.” Meyraux does, however, identify Lucien Lebrun as an important player in the strike.
Again, René is harsh and dismissive of his employees. He considers their plight to be “nonsense” and not worth his time, and Meyraux’s reference to “slave labor” highlights René’s poor treatment of them. Birdsong underscores humankind’s capacity to behave in cruel ways, and through the character of René, Faulks implies that this is not limited to acts of war, but is also present in society as well.
René quickly dismisses Lucien as a threat and continues his disagreement with Meyraux. As the two men bicker, Stephen’s thoughts wonder to Azaire’s mansion and his quiet wife. Stephen’s thoughts are interrupted by René looking for support and agreement in his argument. Stephen quickly agrees and turns his thoughts back to Madame Azaire, momentarily disturbed by how easily he acquiesced to René. Meyraux refuses to continue the discussion in Stephen’s presence. “Of course,” Stephen says. “Nothing personal.”
Through this interaction, Faulks again underscores how power is maintained in an unfair society. Stephen suspects that he doesn’t agree with René’s argument, yet he supports him anyway because it is expected of him (and he is distracted by his feelings for Isabelle). Stephen claims that this is “nothing personal,” yet it personally affects René’s workers in a negative way.
Later, back in his room, Stephen uses the code word “pulse” for Madame Azaire in the pages of his journal. He thinks of her as perfect; attractive and fashionable, yet modest and unrevealing. Despite her perfection, he detects “some other element” as her “pulse,” and Stephen is convinced that there is “some keener physical life than she was actually living in the calm, restrictive rooms of her husband’s house.”
Stephen’s use of the word “pulse” is symbolic of his growing love for Isabelle. “Pulse” has connotations of life, blood, and the color red, which harkens to the red room, where Stephen and Isabelle’s love is realized. This “keener physical life” is born within the red room, and since René has forgotten that this room exists, it is somehow outside of his “restrictive” house.
Days later, René suggests that Meyraux bring Stephen with him to eat lunch with the factory workers. He does, and on the third day of this, Stephen abruptly leaves in the middle of lunch, claiming to feel “faint.”
Stephen feels “faint” because he feels guilty. He has aligned himself with René and his poor treatment of his workers, and as such, Stephen is complicit in René’s immoral acts.
The next day, René asks Stephen if he is feeling better, and he quickly dismisses his symptoms as a reaction to the dying chemicals used in nearby factories, which make it hard for him to breathe. René seems amused by Stephen’s vague upset and suggests a doctor, claiming, “I don’t like to think of you having some kind of fit.”
Madame Azaire quickly tells René to leave Stephen alone. After all, she says, he says he’s fine. René appears irritated, but then he “smiles sardonically” and asks his wife if she has heard her “minstrel” again in her “wanderings in town.” Madame Azaire corrects her husband, claiming that she doesn’t wander but “runs errands.” He dismisses her again, and Stephen must suppress the urge to defend her.
Isabelle is quite used to René’s insults, and this is why she objects on Stephen’s behalf. René “smiles sardonically” as a way of warning Isabelle not to challenge him, and then he insults her daily routine, which implies that her life is trivial. Again, Stephen knows that René’s treatment of Isabelle is abusive and wrong, yet he says nothing, allowing René’s power to run unchecked.
Bérard and his wife stop by again after dinner, as they do on most evenings, and this time they bring along Madame Bérard’s mother, who insists on being called Aunt Elise. Bérard, an “authority on the important families in town” and himself of “superior breeding,” commands the conversation. Madame Azaire mostly ignores him, interrupting occasionally to introduce topics of her own choosing, leaving Bérard “no choice but to cut her off,” which he apologizes for with a “small bow of his head.” Stephen is captivated by Madame Azaire, and while she is not beautiful in a traditional way, he is “motivated by compulsion” to be near her.
Here, Bérard’s patriarchal power is on full display, and so is Isabelle’s resistance to it. Bérard dominates the conversation because, as a man, he believes that what he has to say is of superior importance; however, Isabelle’s multiple interruptions challenge this. Bérard does have a choice—he could simply let her speak—but he won’t allow Isabelle even this small freedom. Bérard views Isabelle’s attempts to introduce conversation topics as a direct threat to his power and masculinity.
The next day, Stephen finds Madame Azaire in the garden cutting roses. He boldly approaches her and removes the shears from her hands. As he begins to cut, he realizes that he has no idea what he is doing. “Let me,” says Madame Azaire, as she instructs Stephen on how to properly cut the flowers.
Isabelle is empowered by her knowledge of the roses. Stephen is ignorant of this simple task, and for once Isabelle is able to command a conversation, even if only for a short time.
Stephen thinks to himself that Madame Azaire has “intrigue and worldliness beyond her obvious position,” and in the course of their short conversation, she reveals that Lisette and Grégoire are her step-children. Their mother had died two years earlier, and she is René’s second wife. Suddenly, Stephen reaches out and grabs Madame Azaire’s hand “without thinking.”
Stephen grabs Isabelle’s hand after he discovers that Lisette and Grégoire are not her biological children, because he no longer views them as her responsibility. If they were her own children, she would have a duty to them (as dictated by society), but since they are not, Stephen considers her off the hook, and free to love him.
Madame Azaire begs Stephen to let go of her hand, yet she doesn’t loosen her grip. Stephen asks her about the sounds he heard that night in the hallway, and she continues to protest. “You must respect my position,” she states. Stephen lets go of her hand and responds, “I will,” before leaving the garden.
Stephen’s use of the phrase “I will” suggests that he will respect Isabelle’s position sometime in the future, perhaps when she is his wife, but certainly not as René’s wife. This phrase also reflects Isabelle’s powerlessness in a sexist society. She asks Stephen not to pursue her, but he doesn’t respect her voice.
The next day, Stephen is eating his lunch in a café when he sees Madame Azaire walk by. He quickly pays and runs to catch up with her. She is surprised to see him, and suddenly, the door of a nearby building opens and a friendly man invites her inside. She identifies Stephen as a friend, and the man invites him inside as well.
Again, Stephen does not respect Isabelle’s pleas not to pursue her, and he advances on her whenever possible. Stephen is eating his lunch in a café because he is still feeling guilty about agreeing with René’s questionable business practices, and he is unable to bring himself to eat with the factory workers.
The man introduces himself as Lucien Lebrun, and he explains to Stephen that he lives in a small apartment in the building with five other people. Lucien turns to Madame Azaire and, addressing her comfortably, asks if she has heard the good news about the men who were able to go back to work.
Stephen finds the comfortable way in which Lucien and Isabelle interact suspicious and suggestive of an affair. This assumption is too a product of misogyny; Isabelle can’t have a relationship with a man unless it is sexual.
Madame Azaire turns to Stephen, sensing his confusion, and explains that she brings food to Lucien to pass around to the dyers and their families who are in need, since many of them “find it hard to live.” René doesn’t know, she claims, but since the dyers don’t technically work for him, she doesn’t consider her “Christian charity” a betrayal. “You mustn’t think badly of me,” she says. “I am loyal to my husband.”
Isabelle’s claim of loyalty to her husband applies not only to René’s business dealings but is also meant to dissuade Stephen’s advances. Isabelle is attempting to tell Stephen to stop pursuing her, yet just like Bérard and René, when she speaks Stephen doesn’t listen. Instead, Stephen does exactly as he wants without regard for Isabelle’s wishes.
Madame Azaire was born Isabelle Fourmentier, the youngest of five girls to a family in the city of Rouen. Isabelle’s parents are indifferent and neglectful, and her father is disappointed that she was not born a boy. Her eldest sister, Mathilde, is temperamental and sullen, and the next two eldest, Béatrice and Delphine, have formed an exclusive alliance. The second to youngest Fourmentier, Jeanne, while only two years older than Isabelle, is her only family support, and the person she loves most in the world.
The narrative shifts here to give a summary of Isabelle’s previous life, and it’s clear that her oppression as a woman began very early for her. Her own father only values sons, and when he doesn’t have any, he is very resentful of his daughters. This causes the girls to rely only on each other, and it deepens their love and relationships. Birdsong highlights many forms of love, and Jeanne and Isabelle’s deep love for one another as sisters is a prime example of this.
Years earlier, at her sister Béatrice’s wedding, Isabelle had met an infantry officer named Jean Destournel. Jean courted Isabelle for a year, but her father intervened, telling Jean he was “too undistinguished” to marry his daughter. Jean wasn’t sure he even wanted to marry Isabelle, but he was nevertheless intimidated by her father, and he quickly ended their relationship.
This passage illustrates Isabelle’s father’s control over her life. As a woman, she is not allowed to choose her own suitors, and she is not free to follow her heart. Instead, these basic choices are made by her father.
Isabelle was heartbroken after Jean left her, but over the next three years she grew into a “strong-willed” woman with “certain taste” and “assurance of opinions.” Isabelle’s father tired of her independence, and when he heard of the death of René Azaire’s wife, he quickly arranged their marriage. René promised Isabelle some independence once they were married, and she agreed, eager to leave her father’s home.
Isabelle’s desire for independence is fueled by her oppression. Of course, this behavior directly leads to her marriage to René. By daring to form her own tastes and opinions, Isabelle’s father views her as a threat to the balance of power, and he quickly moves to stifle this independence.
Isabelle has had little problem transitioning to become Madame Azaire. She is fond of Lisette and Grégoire, and she is an “affectionate and dutiful wife to her husband.” She doesn’t love René and he knows it, but he views love as “unnecessary emotion.”
Despite her resistance to the patriarchy, Isabelle still surrenders to social norms and tries to be a good wife. Unlike Stephen, she views Lisette and Grégoire as her responsibility to nurture and care for.
René believes children are “important proof of his standing in society,” and Isabelle agrees to have more. René approaches sex with his wife in a “businesslike and predatory manner,” and she submits to him, not quite understanding his cold approach and refusal to talk about the act.
When Isabelle does not become pregnant, René blames himself, and his frustration affects his ability to perform sexually. He begins to ignore Isabelle, and she becomes frightened of him. Now, at twenty-nine years old, Isabelle looks at the visiting young Stephen as a sort of “third child,” although she admits that even this awakens a “motherly tenderness” in her.
As René’s masculinity and power begins to slip in the form of his impotence, he attempts to replace this power with fear. Isabelle’s motherly feelings toward Stephen reflect her place within society—it is her job to care for and nurture children and men.
Early one morning, Stephen rises early. The Azaires are planning a day on the water gardens with Bérard and his wife, and they have invited him to join. Lisette appears especially excited by this, and they make their way down to the waterway to board Bérard’s flat-bottomed boat. He directs each of them to a seat on the boat, and Stephen is seated directly across from Isabelle.
Lisette’s excitement over Stephen’s agreement to join their daytrip is evidence of her sexual attraction to him. As Lisette is sixteen and Stephen is twenty, she is a more suitable match for him, and this this makes his love for Isabelle all the more forbidden.
Cramped in the small and uncomfortable boat, there is no breeze and it is exceedingly warm. The water is stagnant, and Stephen tries to situate his feet so that he does not touch Isabelle across from him. He notes her attractive ankles and calves as he positions himself.
The stagnant and decaying water of the Somme is a precursor to the death that will consume the river during the war. Stephen and Isabelle’s efforts to avoid touching each other not only fuel their forbidden attraction but also highlight the lengths that they must go to observe the rules of society; as a married woman, Isabelle must not touch another man, even out of necessity.
Bérard captains the boat, talking excessively about the area and who lives where, referring to the dank riverbed as beautiful. Stephen tries to catch Isabelle’s eye, but she avoids his gaze. Exhausted in the heat, Bérard allows René to captain the boat and they soon stop for lunch.
The riverbed is not beautiful, but since Bérard insists that it is, no one disagrees. This is a reflection of Bérard’s power as a man in society; what he professes as truth is an outright falsehood, yet he has the power to impose his own reality.
On shore, no one is particularly hungry, and as René smokes and Bérard naps, Stephen carves a small figure out of wood. Lisette asks him what he is carving, and he gives her the small figure as a gift. Stephen begins a new carving, intending to give it to Grégoire, and they soon get back on the boat.
Lisette views the offhanded way in which Stephen gifts her the carving as an affirmation of his romantic feelings for her. Of course, the fact that Stephen immediately begins to carve one for Grégoire suggests otherwise, but she fails to notice this, and it fuels her desire for him.
Stephen is disgusted by the water; rats swim by and the entire area seems to be in a state of decay. Isabelle too is miserable, and she loosens the neck of her dress in the unbearable heat. She is suddenly less concerned over the placement of her feet, and her leg rests firmly against Stephen’s.
Again, the decay of the river and the presence of rats in the water foreshadows the state of the river and surrounding areas during the war. Isabelle seems to suddenly give in to her repressed desires, if only for a moment.
As their trip comes to a close, René begins to remark on how wonderful the day has been and how beautiful the river is. Isabelle becomes suddenly aware of the placement of her leg and sits upright, rigidly.
Of course, the day has not been wonderful. The water is disgusting, and the weather is unbearably hot, but since René declares it otherwise, so it is. This is another reflection of René’s power within society.
Back in his room, Stephen takes a cool bath and sits down with a deck of cards. He begins to move the cards about in a sequence taught to him by a friend of his grandfather who made his living telling fortunes at fairs. He files the cards into two piles, telling himself that if the queen of diamonds appears in the left pile before the jack of clubs lands on the right, Isabelle will be his. He smiles to himself, recognizing the ridiculousness of his game.
Stephen knows that his superstitious game is nonsense, but he continues to play it. Stephen’s life has always been painful and out of his control—first as an orphan and now as he finds himself in love with another man’s wife—and he is in search of something to sustain him, even if it is “ridiculous.”
Stephen soon falls asleep to the sounds of birds outside and dreams the reoccurring dream that has plagued him for most of his life. In his dream, a bird is trapped in a window and he tries to free it, when suddenly the entire room is full of birds, all flapping their wings and attempting to peck at his face.
The birds, again indifferent to Stephen, are symbolic of nature and also of optimism. Stephen’s dream of the birds pecking at his face is a reflection of his pessimism and fear of life and love.
The next day, a telegram arrives from London requesting that Stephen conclude his work and get back. He responds, asking for an additional month to complete his work, and panics at the idea of leaving before “resolving the conflicting passions that are threatening to overpower him.”
Faulks’s use of the word “conflicting” suggests that Stephen knows his relationship with Isabelle is wrong; however, he is driven by his love (even though he is frightened by it) and wants to see where it leads.
The threat that the other textile workers will strike with the dyers heats up, and the following day at the factory, Meyraux speaks to the employees as a group. He says that while he hopes one body will one day represent all workers, right now is a poor time for a strike. Foreign competitors are threatening their business, and he urges them to stay and work.
Meyraux alone is responsible for keeping René’s employees pacified and working. René offers very little incentive and he is not willing to budge, which is again evidence of his cruelty and greed.
Suddenly, several protestors supporting the dyers burst into the factory, followed by Lucien Lebrun and the police. Lucien addresses the crowd from Meyraux’s place at the head and encourages all the workers to stick together against unfair wages and poor working conditions. “We must think of our wives and children,” Lucien cries.
Lucien attempts to rally the workers by appealing to their love for their wives and families. Of course, he is unsuccessful.
An unknown man yells from the crowd, “Talking of wives, we all know what they say about you, young man!” Another man loudly protests about the “spy from England” listening in on their meetings. Ignoring the building violence, Stephen asks a worker next to him what was meant by the man’s wife comment. The worker informs him that “Lucien and the boss’s wife [Isabelle] are very good friends.”
Stephen is distracted by the thought of Isabelle having an affair with Lucien and fails to see that his own presence is fueling the mob. He is blinded by his love for Isabelle (and his obvious jealousy) and he narrowly escapes serious injury.
A brawl breaks out in the factory and Stephen is punched in the face by an unseen assailant. He punches back, hitting another man in the face, as the women workers and police usher the dyers and protestors out of the factory. The police “randomly arrest two of the most disreputable-looking” men, and the factory goes back to work.
Ironically, it is the women who largely break-up the brawl, and this serves to further disrupt popular stereotypes of gender. Society has deemed women weak and dependent upon men, yet they completely control this very dangerous situation.
Later in his room, as Stephen’s hand begins to swell, he realizes that he has fallen in love with Isabelle. At dinner, René comments on the disruption at the factory and Stephen tells him he thinks it best if he stays away for a few days to allow everyone to cool down.
To Stephen, the growing dissent at the factory is the perfect excuse for him to stay at home during the day with Isabelle as René is busy at the factory.
The next day after René departs for the factory, Stephen feels like a child home sick from school who is “eavesdropping on this female life.” Isabelle directs the maids and the cook, and she receives a delivery from the butcher boy.
Stephen feels like an intruder in Isabelle’s “female life,” and this too is a reflection of a sexist society. Isabelle’s domestic duties are seen as trivial and wholly foreign to “men’s work.”
Isabelle asks Stephen if he will be taking lunch with her and Lisette, as Grégoire is still in school. He agrees, and the three enjoy an informal meal with plenty of wine. In response to a question about his parents, Stephen tells the women that he was an orphan, raised by grandparents and then in “an institution.” He says that he will be returning to England soon, and “the atmosphere becomes thick.” Lisette excuses herself for a walk in the garden and perhaps a nap, and Stephen is left alone with Isabelle.
Grégoire is at school while Lisette stays at home because a formal education is only valued in the lives of men and boys. Lisette, on the other hand, can learn all she needs to know about domestic life from Isabelle, and as such, she does not attend school.
With Lisette gone, Stephen grabs Isabelle’s arm, and when she protests, he kisses her. He confesses his love for her and kisses her again, and she does not this time resist. Suddenly, she pulls away and runs from the room. She leaves him standing alone and goes to her room, where she paces and cries, “choking with passion for him.” Isabelle returns to the dining room, where Stephen still stands, and tells him, “Come to the red room.”
Again, Stephen does not respect Isabelle’s objections, and this is evidence of her powerlessness. Of course, she is also powerless against her own growing feelings for Stephen, which are rooted in “passion,” not love. Isabelle is unable to contain her desire for Stephen, and this runs counter to society’s expectations of her to be chaste and demure.
Isabelle quickly turns and leaves, and Stephen is afraid he won’t find the right room in the massive house. Near a locked door that leads to the servants’ quarters, Stephen finds Isabelle in a room with a brass bed and a red cover. “Isabelle,” he says for the first time.
Stephen can barely find the dining room each night for dinner, and he is constantly getting lost in the house. Ironically, he quickly locates the red room—evidence of his love and desire for Isabelle.
Stephen begins to tear Isabelle’s clothes from her body, and “the more she imagines the degradation of her false modesty the more she feels excited.” She begins to beg Stephen to take her, and she helps him remove the rest of her clothes. He pushes her to the bed and performs oral sex on her, something she has never experienced before. Isabelle continues to beg him, and then they have sex.
Again, Isabelle’s uncontrollable desire for Stephen is completely at odds with how society expects her to behave. The sexist society Isabelle lives in demands that she be pure and show sexual restraint; Isabelle is unable to do this, and as such, she disrupts popular gender stereotypes and expectations.
Afterward, filled with “desire and happiness,” Stephen and Isabelle remain silently side-by-side on the bed, listening to the sounds of birds in the garden outside. Stephen tells Isabelle that he doesn’t have the strength to watch her about the house, living as René’s wife. “I shall give myself away,” he says. “You won’t,” says Isabelle. “And nor shall I. You will be strong because you love me.”
The birds are again indifferent to Stephen and Isabelle. Interestingly, Isabelle claims that Stephen will find strength in his love for her, not in her love for him, which suggests that Stephen’s love for Isabelle is not completely reciprocated. Isabelle is passionate about Stephen and he satisfies her sexual desires, yet she does not love him in the same way, or to the same extent, that he loves her.
Later, when René returns home from the factory, he is in a surprisingly good mood. The dyers’ strike does not appear to be spreading to his workers, and Bérard and his wife are planning a visit after dinner. René asks Isabelle how her day was, and she tells him that she spent some time reading. René then asks Lisette about her day, and she reports falling asleep in the garden and having a “very strange dream.” When her father asks what the dream was about, she giggles and says, “I’m not telling you.”
Obviously, Lisette is aware of Stephen and Isabelle’s affair. The way she giggles when René asks her about her dream is indicative of her embarrassment over what she has heard. Furthermore, her eavesdropping on her stepmother and her lover has awakened Lisette’s own sexual desires, and she is not eager to talk to her father about them.
Stephen arrives at the dining room door for dinner, and he briefly acknowledges René and Isabelle before quickly sitting in a chair. Stephen ignores Isabelle throughout dinner, engaging René instead about a fishing trip he has planned later in the week with Bérard. As the men converse, Isabelle escapes to her own thoughts.
Again, Stephen’s behavior is a form of self-preservation. If he doesn’t acknowledge Isabelle and their adulterous afternoon, then it didn’t happen—at least not in the presence of René and the Bérards.
Isabelle wonders how long she will be able to “maintain the falsity of her position,” and thinks about her afternoon spent with Stephen. She left the red room at five o’clock, and she has not spoken to him since.
Isabelle’s “falsity of position” is not just her position as René’s wife or Stephen’s lover. Her true sexual nature has been awakened with her affair, and she will not be able to ignore it in the future.
After their time together, Isabelle still must tend to the “practical matters” of their affair. She has to launder the bedding and most of her underclothes; evidence of their love is all over. Isabelle manages time to bathe and wash the traces of Stephen from her skin and body, then she scours the tub and stops to “check and recheck the room for signs of adultery.”
This passage is again reflective of the sexist nature of society. After their affair, Stephen simply goes about his business, but Isabelle is left with all the work. She alone must cover-up their affair and bears the burden of responsibility.
Isabelle doesn’t have the time or the privacy to wash the red bedcover without drawing attention, and she plans instead to throw it away—René will find nothing suspicious about a new bedcover. Isabelle feels “no revulsion for the stains and physical reminders of their afternoon,” instead seeing the marks as “the witness of an intimacy that pressed her heart.” Her sister, Jeanne, has taught her not to be ashamed of such things.
The nature of the society in which Isabelle and Jeanne have grown up demands that they be ashamed of their sexuality; however, Jeanne and Isabelle refuse to follow this rule. Their sexuality is the very thing that gives and sustains life, and they will not be ashamed. In this way, both Jeanne and Isabelle challenge the patriarchy.
Bérard and his wife arrive for a visit, and they all stand to move to another room for cards and drinks. As Isabelle stands, she is suddenly aware of Stephen’s eyes on her body. She feels naked and is suddenly “overpowered” by her “shame and guilt.” She begins to markedly blush, and René asks if she is feeling well. Isabelle insists that she is simply warm and excuses herself. Bérard and René exchange a glance; “Circulation problems,” Bérard says.
Bérard’s diagnosis of “circulation problems” hints at menstruation and women’s problems, which neither René nor Bérard take seriously. As such, they do not take Isabelle seriously either. Ironically, Isabelle is not ashamed of her affair until she is in René’s presence. This is reflective of his control over her.
Alone in her room, Isabelle hears a soft knock on her door. Stephen appears, having come to check that she is alright. He kisses her quickly and returns downstairs to René, Bérard, and their card game.
Unlike René, Stephen truly loves Isabelle and cares about her well-being, and so he is the only one to check on her in her room.
The next day, Stephen takes a walk into town. René has told him not to return to the factory for a few more days, and he cannot bear to be around Isabelle without sharing parts of himself. With Isabelle, Stephen feels “an impulse to disclose” his life, and while this doesn’t frighten him, he “does not feel pleasure at the prospect of [talking about his past].”
Again, Stephen’s love for Isabelle is not merely physical. He wants to share his life with her, even though his life is full of heartache and pain, which makes Isabelle’s ultimate rejection of Stephen all the more painful.
Stephen enters a cathedral, and kneeling in a pew, he prays “instinctively, without knowing what he did.” He asks God to save him and Isabelle.
Stephen knows that his affair with Isabelle is wrong on many levels, and he is compelled to ask God for forgiveness.
When Stephen returns to the mansion, he finds Isabelle reading in a small study. As she stands to greet him, he begins to kiss her, running his hands all over her body. He pins her to the wall and reaches under her dress, pulling at her clothing. “We must stop,” he says. They agree to meet in the red room, but neither of them move to separate. “Come to me,” Isabelle whispers. “Into me, now.”
Isabelle is excited by the prospect of getting caught. Stephen stops and suggests they go to the red room for more privacy, but she is determined to have him right there in the main study of the house. Again, this is the opposite of how Isabelle is expected to behave.
They have sex right there in the study, fully clothed and standing against the wall. “I love you,” Isabelle tells Stephen as she pulls away from him and runs her hands up and down his body. As Stephen begins to orgasm, Isabelle takes the last “three or four spasms in her mouth.” She does so “instinctually,” “almost from a sense of tidiness, not because it was something she had known about or done before.”
Interestingly, Isabelle professes her love to Stephen during sex, which suggests a deeper love for the act itself than for Stephen. Her “instinct” to clean up, even during their lovemaking, is reflective of the domestic responsibilities expected of her. Additionally, this instinctual knowledge of oral sex implies that it is a natural act and nothing to be ashamed of, rather than evidence of any depravity on Isabelle’s behalf, as society would have her believe.
“The red room,” Isabelle says, standing up. “In ten minutes.” She turns to leave, and Stephen kills time cleaning the floor and takes a short walk in the garden. He remembers the exact way to the room, and finds Isabelle waiting for him there, dressed only in a robe. She takes charge, undressing Stephen slowly, and the two spend the rest of the afternoon making love.
Isabelle again challenges popular female stereotypes by taking control of her lovemaking with Stephen. Typically, society views the man as in charge in all areas, especially those concerning sex, but Isabelle is empowered to take control, upsetting traditional notions of femininity.
After they wake, Stephen again asks Isabelle about the night he heard sounds from her bedroom. Isabelle tells Stephen that René “becomes frustrated” with her. After she failed to become pregnant, René assumed that there was nothing wrong with him since he has already fathered two children, but now he is “not so sure.” He resents Isabelle for being young and claims that she “castrated him.” Now, he tries to become “excited” by “doing strange things.”
René’s abusive treatment is a display of his sexist beliefs and misogyny. He resents Isabelle’s youth and her ability to mother children, and he views his impotence (and her fertility) as a threat to his power and masculinity. René attempts to right this power imbalance with physical abuse, and this replaces a sexual release within his relationship with Isabelle.
Isabelle tells Stephen that René hits her, and while it is not terribly painful, she finds his strange sexual acts “humiliating.” She claims that they haven’t had actual intercourse for over a year, and they “both know he only comes to hit her now,” but they “pretend.” As Isabelle and Stephen talk, neither feels guilty about their affair, and doves sing in the garden below.
Again, the doves represent nature’s indifference to human unhappiness. Isabelle feels responsible in her failing and abusive relationship, yet she is powerless to change it within the confines of her sexist society. Isabelle’s affair with Stephen is the only way she is able to resist René’s abuse.
Meanwhile, René has no reason to suspect Isabelle and Stephen’s affair. He is not threatened by Stephen, and he is not in love with his wife either. Mostly, René feels guilty for marrying Isabelle and stealing her youth, and while his wife was initially receptive towards him, his neglect has turned her sour. René had “awakened her emotional and physical appetites,” but had left her long ago for “a long, unnecessary battle with his own shortcomings.”
René is not threatened by Stephen, but he is threatened by his wife’s sexuality. It is clear to René that his wife is a passionate and sensual woman, but he is unable to give her what she needs, and this directly contributes to his impotence. René’s guilt is a hint at his hidden conscience, yet he fails to fully acknowledge this in his desperate need to prove his masculinity.
On the weekend, Stephen agrees to go on the fishing trip to the Ancre River with the Azaires. Bérard is unable to come along after all, and Stephen boards the trolley with the family and heads to the countryside. They take a second train from Albert to Beaumont and arrive on the water. After an unsuccessful morning fishing, they all travel into the village of Auchonvillers to a small café Bérard has recommended for lunch.
The city of Albert and the village of Auchonvillers will become important locations during the upcoming war. A bloody battle will take place in the fields surrounding the area, and Stephen will nearly die here. Furthermore, Albert is the future home to the World War I monument Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, visits on her journey to understand her grandfather.
At the small café, Stephen and the Azaires eat unappealing fish and drink wine. Sitting across from Isabelle, Stephen knows he will never return to London. He feels too strongly for Isabelle, but in addition to his tender feelings, he has “an overpowering sense of curiosity” to see where their relationship will go.
Through Stephen’s decision not to return to England, Faulks argues the motivational power of love. Stephen is willing to sacrifice his career in order to pursue his relationship with Isabelle.
After lunch, they return to the river, and Stephen finds a secluded tree to rest under. Suddenly, a hand grabs his shoulder, and he turns to finds Lisette standing beside him.
Of course, Stephen assumes that only Isabelle would approach him. Society, and Stephen, expects Lisette to be chaste and innocent.
“You expected it to be someone else, didn’t you?” Lisette asks, before promptly informing Stephen that she knows all about him and her step-mother. She had heard them that first day in the garden from an open window, and she had also heard Stephen sneak into Isabelle’s room later that night to check on her.
Like Isabelle, Lisette is behaving in a way that is unexpected because of her gender. Society expects Lisette to be pure and unaware of sex.
Lisette tells Stephen that he “shouldn’t have led her on” by giving her the wood carving, and she tells him that her body is not the body of a child. “Touch me, then, touch me as you touch her.” He refuses, but Lisette grabs his hand and places it between her breasts, and Stephen feels “the reflex of desire.”
Stephen shows restraint with Lisette, and this is reflective of his love for Isabelle. Clearly, Stephen is attracted to Lisette, and she is certainly open to him, but he ignores his “reflex of desire.”
Stephen tries to placate Lisette with a kiss, but she declines, instead placing his hand under her skirt. Stephen becomes slightly aroused and doesn’t immediately pull his hand away. When he does, he grabs Lisette’s arm and tells her to never again behave this way. She stiffens under his touch. “I promise,” she says. “I want to go home now.”
Although Stephen begins to falter and succumb to desire, he ultimately chooses his love for Isabelle over sex with Lisette. However, Stephen also assumes power over Lisette and tells her exactly how she will behave in the future, and she is clearly frightened of him and his abuse of power.
One day while in the red room, Stephen tells Isabelle about Lisette’s advances. Isabelle asks him if he thinks Lisette is ready to make love to a man. He answers yes, but reassures her that he is not interested. Isabelle is less concerned about Stephen’s potential feelings for Lisette and is more worried that this difficult time in her young life means that Isabelle has “a duty to stay and look after her,” instead of running away with Stephen.
Isabelle is not initially concerned with Stephen’s potential feelings for Lisette because Isabelle is more worried about Lisette’s feelings than Stephen’s. This is reflective of Isabelle’s sense of responsibility toward her stepchildren, which outweighs any romantic feelings that she has for Stephen. This also evidence that Isabelle’s feelings for Stephen are rooted in passion, not love.
Stephen reminds Isabelle that Lisette and Grégoire are not her children, and he informs her that he is supposed to return to London next week. He suggests they go to a remote place in England, and Isabelle suggests that he stay in France and work locally. “Not that, Isabelle. You know that won’t work.” As he begins to seduce her again, Isabelle agrees to run away with him.
Isabelle could be happy running around with Stephen behind René’s back, as she could still fulfill her duty to the children but also satisfy her sexual desires. As Stephen’s feelings are more deeply rooted in love for Isabelle, this is not an option for him. Stephen must have Isabelle all to himself or not at all.
Later René tells Stephen and Isabelle that he heard a “strange story” about someone visiting Lucien during the strike and delivering food. Stephen says that he heard of many men bringing food to the dyers’ families, but René says this was a woman.
René considers this a “strange story” because he too believes that a woman cannot have a relationship with a man that does not involve sex.
Isabelle confesses suddenly. “I don’t think it’s strange. It was me.” Isabelle tells René that the people were hungry and she fed them. She would do it again, she says, and René becomes angry, telling her that he has heard “another piece of tittle-tattle.” According to rumor, the woman was also “enjoying some liaison with Lebrun.” Isabelle denies the affair, claiming, “Not with Lucien. With Stephen.”
Isabelle considers her relationship with Lucien and her attempts to aid the striking workers’ families to be her Christian duty. Isabelle is kind and moral, yet rumor and popular assumptions have branded her otherwise because of her gender.
Isabelle apologizes to René, claiming it was not done to hurt him. René demands to know where in the house the affair took place and wonders what her father will think. “Bitch,” he says. “Your father told me and I never listened.”
This is further evidence of René’s misogyny. He uses derogatory language and is abusive towards Isabelle, and insists on knowing where the affair took place because it threatens his own masculinity.
“What can you expect from a woman you have treated as you have treated Isabelle?” Stephen asks. René, clearly embarrassed that Stephen knows his secret impotence, kicks him out of the house. “I will leave your house,” he says, “and I am taking your wife with me.”
René is more bothered that Stephen knows his secret than he is about the actual affair. For René, having another man aware of his deficient masculinity is worse than potentially losing his wife to another man.
“I don’t want this,” Isabelle claims. She states that she doesn’t know how to behave now or whom to love. She doesn’t fully trust Stephen’s love either, she says. “How do I know that you love me, Stephen? How can I tell?” Turning to René, Isabelle asks, “Why should I trust you when you have given me so little reason to even like you?”
This is further proof that Isabelle does not love Stephen in quite the same way that he loves her. Isabelle is more driven by her dislike for René than she is by her love for Stephen. The fact that she doesn’t know whom to love suggests that she could equally love either man—or neither one, for that matter.
Isabelle tells René that she is going to her room to pack, and as she leaves the room he yells, “You go with him and you are going to hell!”
René’s outburst directly appeals to Isabelle’s morality and her sense of guilt, and this fuels Isabelle’s subsequent shame of her affair with Stephen.
Isabelle packs a few dresses and her framed pictures of her family and meets Stephen in the foyer. She can’t bring herself to say good-bye to the children, and as Isabelle and Stephen walk out the door, both Lisette and Grégoire watch from the stairs.
Isabelle feels guilty that she abandons the children for Stephen. After all, society has deemed them her responsibility and she is turning her back on them. Interestingly, she later neglects saying good-bye to Stephen when she leaves him as well, and this too is a reflection of her guilt over her life choices.
The children stand terrified as René goes from room to room, tearing apart beds and searching for evidence of Isabelle and Stephen’s affair. He goes through every room in the house before giving up, forgetting about the red room.
The red room is symbolic of Isabelle’s passion and sexuality. Ironically, just as René is unable to satisfy his wife sexually, he is not able to find the red room.
Stephen and Isabelle board a train and end up in the spa town of Plombières. Finally alone together, Isabelle asks Stephen about his childhood. Stephen tells her that his father abandoned his mother once she became pregnant, and after he was born, he went to live with his grandparents. Stephen’s mother ran away with another man, and after his grandfather was sent to prison “on some small charge,” he was sent to an institution.
Stephen’s history is an important factor in Isabelle’s later decision to leave him. Since he did not have a traditional childhood or parents who loved him unconditionally, Isabelle assumes that Stephen will not understand the deep love that she develops for their unborn child.
Stephen tells Isabelle that a social reformer named Vaughan showed an interest in him and became his guardian. He funded his education, and Stephen says, “That’s it.” “That’s all?” Isabelle asks. “That’s all your life?”
Isabelle thinks that Stephen’s life is lacking, particularly in love, and this passage reflects this opinion. Again, this in large part is why Isabelle ultimately decides to leave Stephen.
Stephen and Isabelle arrive in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, near Isabelle’s cousin, and Jeanne wires them money to secure an apartment. Stephen takes a job as an assistant to a furniture maker, and Isabelle tends to their home.
Stephen and Isabelle settle into their respective gender roles; however, Stephen is highly educated, and he accepts a job that is below his station so that Isabelle can be near her family. This is a reflection of Stephen’s love for Isabelle and the sacrifices he is willing to make for her happiness.
Their life together is quiet but comfortable, and Isabelle doesn’t miss her life with René. They spend most of their time together, even in sleep, but Stephen finds that “the closeness of Isabelle’s unconscious body makes him feel uneasy.” Stephen spends many nights on the couch, staring thoughtlessly at the ceiling.
Stephen is “uneasy” next to Isabelle because he senses that she does not love him as much as he loves her. Deep down, Stephen knows that his heart is not safe with Isabelle, and he is unable to sleep next to her because of this.
After two months, Isabelle has settled comfortably into her new life when she misses her menstrual cycle. Isabelle notes that “she had stopped hemorrhaging herself away; her power was turned inward where it would silently create.” She mentions nothing to Stephen.
Isabelle is empowered by her sexuality, and she is likewise empowered by her ability to create human life. She considers this power uniquely her own, and she is not willing to share it with Stephen.
On day while walking in town with Stephen, Isabelle becomes faint and must sit down. Stephen begins to fuss over her, and she nearly tells him that she is pregnant—yet something stops her. She wishes she could just present Stephen with the child. To Isabelle, her pregnancy is nobody else’s business, “even the man who had caused [it].”
Isabelle’s sexist society views a woman’s reproductive system and menstrual cycle as something unclean and shameful, and since her child is a direct result of this, she keeps it a secret—even from Stephen. She wishes to present the child to him only after it is born, and skip the messy birth.
Isabelle is convinced that Stephen won’t understand her connection to her unborn baby. She imagines it is a boy, and the baby satisfies a deep need that she didn’t realize she had; “it was as though she had become conscious of a starving hunger only after having eaten.” Isabelle’s feelings for her baby make her nostalgic for her own family, or at least for Jeanne, and she begins to feel guilty for what she has done. She has already confessed her sin to the local priest, but his penance is “unsatisfying.”
Isabelle’s assumption that her unborn child is a boy mirrors her father’s own preference for a male child. Even though Isabelle is a woman and resents society’s unfair treatment of her, she is subconsciously affected by its message of male superiority. Isabelle’s attempts to confess her sins is reflective of René’s outburst damning her to hell. She is attempting to save her soul, yet is also “unsatisfied” by her penance because she doesn’t truly believe that she has sinned by indulging her natural sexual desires.
Now, in the street with Stephen, Isabelle cannot bring herself to tell him her secret. He offers her a piece of cake in case she hasn’t been eating well, and a large pigeon descends on them, looking for a stray piece of cake.
Again, Stephen’s fear of birds reflects his own pessimism and fear of life. Birds metaphorically represent life and optimism within the novel, and they serve as a sort of kryptonite to Stephen.
“Jesus Christ!” Stephen yells in response to the bird. Isabelle can’t understand. “It’s only a pigeon,” she says. She swats the bird away and turns to Stephen. “I’ve always hated birds,” he says. He tells Isabelle about a bad experience with a dead crow at the institution as a child, and she assumes that birds remind him of his awful childhood. Stephen claims it is only partly that. “I’ve always hated them, from long before that. There’s something cruel, prehistoric about them.”
Stephen views the birds as cruel because he subconsciously views life as cruel. His own parents did not love him as they should have, and he senses that Isabelle’s love is not strong either. Birds remind Stephen of what he is lacking in his life, and because of this, he hates them.
The next week, Isabelle feels a sharp pain in her stomach and goes to visit a doctor. He gives her a test and promises results in a week. She goes back to the church but not to confess. Ashamed, she looks up at the crucifix.
While Isabelle is ashamed of the choices she has made (mainly abandoning Lisette and Grégoire), she is not ashamed of her pregnancy (or the act that created it) and she refuses to confess.
Later, Isabelle writes a letter to Jeanne. She tells her of her pregnancy and her hesitancy to tell Stephen. The doctor has said that her pain is normal and that she need only rest. Isabelle tells Jeanne that she fears she has “gone too far” in her relationship with Stephen, and while she is lost, she thinks that she “can find her way home if she goes now.”
Isabelle has “gone too far” in her relationship with Stephen because she doesn’t truly love him in the way that he loves her. Isabelle knows that she will eventually go back to Lisette and Grégoire and break Stephen’s heart, and she feels guilty about this deception.
Meanwhile, Stephen thinks of his grandfather’s cottage and considers taking Isabelle there. He does not feel sentimental for the cottage or his grandfather, but he wants to see Isabelle in the place of his past, “so that the ages of his life will be united.”
Isabelle assumes that Stephen’s past means he is incapable of love; however, Stephen’s intention to “unite” his love for Isabelle with his loveless past suggests otherwise.
When Stephen returns home, he finds Isabelle and most of her personal belongings gone. Many of her dresses still hang in the closet, and he holds one “against his face, then crushes it in his arms.” The next day he goes to work and comes home and makes himself dinner. He sits alone each night thereafter, drinking wine and thinking about nothing. Stephen feels “himself grow cold.”
Stephen has been betrayed by love. The coldness he feels is his soul being taken over by the hate that will largely sustain him throughout the war. Still, Stephen remains in the apartment and waits for Isabelle to return, and this is evidence of his enduring love for her.