Elaine, older now, thinks about diseases of the memory—like forgetfulness of nouns or numbers, or losing the present. She wonders which one of them will afflict her later, and is certain that one of them will. For years, she had wanted to be older, and now she is. She sits in the Quasi drinking red wine and thinking about Cordelia—she believes her name may have doomed her. Elaine’s own name was the same name as her mother’s best friend, which was a trend at the time.
Elaine is fascinated with forgetfulness and frames it as something that will belong to her future, but she has already been inflicted with trauma-induced forgetting, which adds a layer to these anxieties. Elaine thinks about her and Cordelia’s names and wonders if those have affected their respective fates, which points to her weak faith in free will; rather than implying that humans can take charge of their fates, this novel constantly looks for places where those fates might have been externally determined, or at least influenced.
Jon arrives late to dinner with Elaine, and they flirt a little. When they discuss their jobs, they realize that “there’s not much time left, for [them] to become what [they] once intended,” because "potential has a shelf life.” During the meal, Elaine remembers back to their relationship. They fought viciously—she used to throw things at him in fits of rage, like a glass ashtray, shoes and handbags, and even a portable television set. Their relationship was volatile, reckless, and almost lethal, but Elaine now looks back with a certain amount of fondness—though she doesn’t want to reveal her sentimentality to him. He has separated from his wife, who left him, though he says that he might share some of the blame. Elaine can’t help but forgive him; she thinks that forgiving men is easier than forgiving women. After dinner, they part ways but talk about potentially getting a drink later.
Elaine’s relationship with Jon has many layers, as the two have a conflict-laden past that they still have to overcome. In part, this speaks to the passage of time, which tends to soften conflict through forgetting. It also speaks to the way that relationships like this can define one’s life, and lead to attachment and even a truly corrupted relationship. In this case, Elaine’s gender biases seem to be the largest factor for her ability to forgive Jon, as she seems to see men’s bad behavior as almost inevitable, and therefore beyond criticism. The other factor is her own mortality, revealed in her anxieties about no longer having potential—perhaps she has produced the great artworks that she is meant to produce—and leads to her desire to see Jon again, which foreshadows the potential rekindling of their relationship. Sometimes, as this implies, one revisits the past in order to stave off the future.
Elaine walks along Queen thinking about a picture she painted called Falling Women, which she thinks of as a painting about men although there were no men in the painting. She saw men as unintentional harm, like sharp rocks—you could fall on them, but there was no point blaming them. She feels like that must have been the source of the term fallen women, just women “who had fallen onto men and hurt themselves”—the “suggestion of downward motion,” but without any particular “will” behind it. These were not “pushed women,” but accidentally fallen. In this painting, three women are depicted falling as though accidentally off a bridge, with their skirts open to the wind, onto the men lying unseen below.
Elaine’s Falling Women painting reinforces her perspective on gender, which focuses most interest and blame on women. While she lets men off the hook because they effectively can’t help their dangerous natures, she does not forgive them in doing so—she objectifies them as rocks to be fallen upon. Women, on the other hand, are both victims and culprits in Elaine’s view, and ultimately define humanity. While she could be accused of victim-blaming by implying that women hurt themselves on men, there’s also a sense in which she takes all credit away from men—women are endowed with freedom and the agency to act, even if it comes with deadly risks. In the painting itself, she calls up her own past by painting three women, who could very well portray Cordelia, Grace, and Carol. In doing so, she turns her own aggressors into the victims of a sordid fate, and ultimately uses her art to address this element of her past.
Elaine stares at a nearly naked woman in her Life Drawing class, whom she attempts to draw. She has never seen a naked woman before, because even in locker rooms girls kept their clothing on. She’s trying to draw her with charcoal and fluidity of line, but something about looking at the woman’s body under fluorescent lights scares here—she finds the folds and wrinkles in her body off-putting, because she is not beautiful, and Elaine fears turning into that.
Elaine’s initial immersion into art involves both another situation where she feels like she has to learn from an authority figure, and also focuses on gendered relationships. She is exposed to the female body for the first time, which she finds off-putting for its discrepancies to what she considers beautiful. The implication here is that reality often falls short of art or other abstractions, and her job as an artist is to learn to translate reality into something new.
Elaine takes the class Tuesdays at Toronto College of Art, taught by Mr. Hrbik, who admitted her to the class despite her mediocre portfolio. Elaine had tried to paint without any instruction, because she knew she just had to start in order to pursue this new dream of hers, but the results were not impressive—in the end, the drawings she made for biology helped her more. Mr. Hrbik teaches the class to draw the body as it is, not as something beautiful—not as a corpse. He also tells Elaine to save her pieces even when she is dissatisfied with them, because she will be able to look at them later and see how far she has come. He also tries to encourage her by saying she is an “unfinished voman, but here you will be finished.”
Mr. Hrbik straddles the line between supportive and critical, uplifting and creepy. He calls Elaine an unfinished woman, which has threatening tones, especially in English where “to finish” someone can also mean to kill them. In art, there appears to be a fine line between sexuality and death, both of which are major themes in the novel. Elaine should be suspicious of Mr. Hrbik’s patronizing tone, as it is a common sexism for male teachers to treat their students that way—however, as usual, she does not take a typical perspective and still seems to respect him, which may speak to her own lower self-image.
Elaine studies Art and Archeology at the University of Toronto, because the program was a sanctioned way to study art and she won a scholarship. They start with the classical period, and she has to memorize different column names—she looks forward to moving into the medieval and Renaissance periods, because she’s come to see classical art as bleached-out and broken. Her parents doubt her choice to study art, because it seems impractical—Elaine’s mother said it was fine if that was what she really wanted to do but doubted her ability to make a living, and both her parents felt more comfortable with the possibility of archeology than art. One of her mother’s friends told Elaine that art was something you could always do at home, in your spare time.
Elaine’s parents provide a common perspective on art, which is that artistic professions do not have strong prospects—this, Elaine finds less off-putting, as part of the draw to art is to escape her family.
All but one of the students in Elaine’s course are women, whereas all but one of the professors are men. Elaine feels ill-at-ease among the wealthier, better-dressed girls that do study alongside her. She thinks that they would judge her Life Drawing class as pretentious, but she sees it as her real life. She starts wearing all black, which Babs and Marjorie (older women in Life Drawing) tease her for. Mrs. Finestein tells Elaine’s mother that she looks like an Italian widow and is letting herself go; Elaine agrees.
Rather than an idealized world of creators striving to achieve some kind of transcendent communication, Elaine sees wealthy girls whom she feels left out by. Elaine also changes her looks to match her artistic calling; by wearing all black and letting go of femininity, she shows her distaste both for conventionality and for womanhood. Elaine’s rise to independence involves rejecting social norms, though in a familiar way. In other words, one form of conformity is replaced by another.
Elaine drinks beer in a beer parlor with other students from Life Drawing—they can only obtain entrance to the nicer “Ladies and Escorts” section if a girl accompanies them. The boys, among them Jon, tease the other absent girls for being lady painters, and say “if you’re bad, you’re a lady painter. Otherwise you’re just a painter.” Elaine has stopped going out on dates in the normal way, as she sees it as somehow no longer a serious thing to do—and she has received fewer invitations since she started wearing black turtlenecks. These boys are rowdy—they want to go to New York, they speak disparagingly of their girlfriends, and they idealize contemporary art. Elaine feels privileged to be among them; she wants to be accepted, and she thinks that “she can see them clearly” because she expects nothing of them.
Elaine appears to feel at home among the boys in her class, in part because they also seem to reject society and show a comforting egotism. Elaine does not mind their sexism, either because she still does not fully identify with other women, or because her weak self-image makes her prone to accepting the criticism of others. These boys build an identity out of negativity, which is what one typically does when one lacks success—without actual power, as this book constantly reminds us, one can acquire power by putting down others. Their attitude recalls that of the young Cordelia, but it does not bother Elaine as she is included in their midst—in many ways, Elaine has grown to take on the traits of her then-bully, and the differences between them melt away.
The boys like to make fun of Mr. Hrbik for his Eastern European origins and refugee status. They call him Uncle Joe, and everyone knows that he was shunted around between four different countries during the war because of the upheaval, although this is not something he has talked about. The boys hate the drawing class and see Mr. Hrbik as a “throwback,” whereas Elaine feels a combination of sorrow and admiration. They only take Life Drawing because it is a requirement and all believe that Action Painting is where the important developments are happening.
Mr. Hrbik becomes a victim for the boys as well as an image of interest for Elaine for the same reason: his relationship to the war. As he came west as an Eastern European refugee, he becomes both more and less worthy of respect depending on one’s perspective, which speaks to the nuanced influence of the war. For the boys, he is a fossil, a relic of the past, and an unwelcome reminder of their mortality and the whims of fate. For Elaine, however, he represents more romantic notions, made more profound by the life and death scale that the war brought in.
One night, Susie, another Life Drawing student, joins the group in the Ladies and Escorts room. She also wears black turtlenecks, but she does her eye make-up heavily like Cleopatra and has full hips. Elaine has derisive opinions about her, because she sees Susie as just a silly girl playing around in art school because she was too dumb to get into university. Susie seems to have special knowledge about Mr. Hrbik, which makes it clear that she’s been having an affair with him.
The fact that Mr. Hrbik seems to be having an affair with one of his young students, Susie, should disturb Elaine—instead, she seems jealous of Susie and judges her femininity. In general, Elaine reads femininity as a nefarious disguise, a mode of entrapment, perhaps because she sees women as at risk of violence—either receiving it, or enacting it on others. Woman are figures of power and risk, and they often function as mirrors for Elaine: when she does not like what she sees, she lashes out at the other woman.
February has arrived, and Elaine’s classes have moved beyond the medieval period. In her daytime classes, Elaine pesters the other girls by talking about the dirtier aspects of Jesus and Mary, like breast-feeding and changing diapers. She likes it when she can get under the skin of the other girls, because she thinks that it shows that she isn’t like them. She considers her daytime life only one of her lives, whereas her nighttime life is her real life. At night, she observes Susie and Mr. Hrbik. Susie is two years older than Elaine at 21 and lives in a bachelorette apartment rather than with her parents. She often stays after class or shows up early, and thinks that she is subtle with her glances towards Mr. Hrbik. However, the affair becomes obvious to everyone in class, and the male painters judge Susie negatively.
Elaine does not seem particularly attached to the things she learns in class, in part because dividing the history of art into periods like this can distance one from it. Instead, she prefers facts that she can use to get under people’s skin—in this case, discussing the human elements of Jesus and Mary, which disturb others because they turn the sacred into something profane. Elaine mostly likes to disgust girls because she does not want to be the same as them, which she has felt for years. Instead, she seeks out the approval of her older male teacher, an authority figure she can sexualize.
Elaine doesn’t find the idea of their love affair funny the way her older classmates Babs and Marjorie do, because she sees Susie as in control, leading Mr. Hrbik to his besotted fate. Once Susie realizes that everyone already knows, she becomes bolder in demonstrating her affections and starts referring to Mr. Hrbik as Josef and talking about him more often. Elaine feels like Mr. Hrbik must need rescuing or protecting, because she has yet to learn that men who are admirable in some ways might actually be bad in others.
Elaine seems to feel left out of Mr. Hrbik’s affair with Susie and continues to judge her for it. Elaine trusts men implicitly, while she doubts women; in part, she respects Mr. Hrbik for his legitimate artistic authority, whereas Susie has proven nothing to her. However, their objective skills or merit have nothing to do with Elaine’s real opinion, which has its source in her automatic assumptions that women are vile and men need protecting.
Though Elaine still lives at home, she moves into the cellar, where she puts up theater posters of Waiting for Godot and No Exit. Her mother finds the theater posters gloomy, but Elaine knows better. Her father finds her talent for drawing impressive but wasted, as she could have dedicated herself to an impressive botany career. He has become melancholic, as Mr. Banerji returned to India after failing to get promoted. Elaine’s father see this as a betrayal from the department, because Mr. Banerji was more than qualified and was clearly being discriminated against. Elaine’s mother comments on her lack of appetite whenever she emerges for a meal, and her father peppers her with more morose anecdotes about strange insects and diseases.
At this juncture in Elaine’s life, her relationship with her family is defined by mild conflict—she wants to create spaces for herself that they cannot understand, so that she can have some distance while still living with them. Her choice to be an artist is the major difference between Elaine and her father, as it seems to be a firm rejection of his scientific career. The family’s dinner table conversations feel like a piece of frozen time in some ways, as Elaine’s father continues to ruminate on natural catastrophe and Elaine’s mother shows vague concern for her daughter.
In the spring, Stephen gets arrested for trespassing on a military testing site while trying to chase a butterfly. He had been studying astrophysics in California, which Elaine has a hard time picturing, and he does not fit in well with the beautiful tanned people who wear sports clothing and go to the beach. Stephen prefers to wear sweaters with worn holes and forgets to get his hair cut, and on this particular day he had gone out with his binoculars and his butterfly book and apparently not been bothered to think twice about chasing some exotic butterflies over a chain link fence. The men at the site have a hard time believing that Stephen is not some kind of spy, but eventually he gets bailed out. Elaine only hears about this from her parents; although Stephen sometimes still writes her letters, they arrive with neither greeting nor signature, as though he had been writing one long unfolding letter the entire time.
Stephen has made some progress, having abandoned the familial context, but he also seems to not cope well with society. Between his bizarre clothing choices, reading habits, and the anecdote about the butterfly, it appears that Stephen exists in his own world, with little space for family and even less for the other people around him. His disregard of others puts him in danger, in particular on the military base, and this implies that society and social institutions are inherently dangerous. When someone does not watch out, conform, or pay attention, they can be at the mercy of breaking rules that they did not know existed: there is no easy way to just live for oneself.
Stephen and Elaine communicate via letters, which talk about both the banal and more profound elements of his studies. He is hard at work trying to understand the nature of the universe, and tells Elaine that he hopes she is staying out of trouble. Elaine starts to think that he might be more careless and ignorant than brave, as she had always thought before. She pictures him sitting in a tree in California, writing to her but not actually knowing who he is writing to, because she believes that she has changed beyond recognition. She also wonders how he might have changed, because she pictures him as the same brother she grew up with, even though she knows that this cannot be true. She wishes that he would be more careful, because he is out in the open in the world, surrounded by strangers.
Although Elaine and Stephen stay in touch, their relationship seems impersonal. In particular, Stephen does not show much interest in Elaine’s life—he wants to solve grand scientific problems that get to the core of existence. Rather than seeming in awe of her brother’s ambitions, Elaine starts to worry about him—she pictures him as being somewhat frozen in time, and also worries that the world won’t be gentle with him. This shows some amount of maturity on her part, as well as her own sense of aging—Elaine sees her own life as in motion and her identity as in flux, which leads her to wonder more about the lives and identities of others.
Elaine meets Mr. Hrbik at a French restaurant, where they dine on wine and eat snails. During her individual evaluation with him back in May, he had seduced her after complimenting her progress. She found the process foreign, dangerous, and potentially degrading, but she decided to follow him to his apartment anyway. He lived in a relatively poor neighborhood, and kept his hand on her back as they walked up the stairs together. When he kissed her, Elaine felt awkward because she was afraid that someone might see them out the window. She finally had sex with him, which she found less bloody and painful than she had expected.
The narrative jumps to a point where Elaine and Mr. Hrbik are on a date before going back and explaining how they got to that point. This fragmentation makes the affair feel sudden, though it had been foreshadowed for a while. There’s a huge dissonance in Elaine’s description of the relationship, as on one level she describes something quite unpleasant, and on another she describes herself falling in love with him.
All summer, Mr. Hrbik ended up buying Elaine nice meals and asking her not to leave him. Elaine thinks that she might have found his lines comical if they were said by another man, but because she has fallen in love with Josef she finds it sweet—she has fallen in love with his need. Meanwhile, Elaine moves into her own apartment and gets a job at the Swiss Chalet. She lives with two of her coworkers.
Elaine ultimately bases her love in her sense of Mr. Hrbik’s need of her—he is the first character to have really needed her and shown it in a way that is not directly aggressive, unlike Cordelia.
As their relationship develops, Elaine and Mr. Hrbik keep it hidden from Susie, who seems to suspect something and feel heartbroken. Susie tracks Elaine down at her job and wants to talk to Elaine, who does not have much time. When Josef talks about Susie, he describes her as though she were a problem child. Susie wants to get married, though Mr. Hrbik does not agree. Elaine also doesn’t desire marriage; she would rather dedicate herself to her painting, and sees herself dying her hair, wearing outlandish clothing, traveling, and possibly drinking. Elaine worries a little bit about pregnancy, because contraceptives aren’t allowed for unmarried women, but it does not deter her.
Elaine continues to see herself as in competition with Susie as she dates Mr. Hrbik, and although it’s an easy form of manipulation for one person to pit two against each other, Elaine lets herself fall for it. The question of marriage does divide the two women, as Elaine reveals that her anti-conforming tendencies extend this far. Elaine wants to make decisions for herself, whether those regarding travel, style, or work, and for a woman at that time, marriage often hindered the freedom of these decisions.
In her free time, Elaine paints furniture. Josef (as she now calls him) does not want to talk about the war or escaping during the revolution. He does tell her his dreams, which involve women covered in cellophane, walking along balconies dressed in shrouds, and lying face-down in bathtubs. He tells Elaine he has no country and that she is his country now; she realizes she is miserable.
The war continues to haunt their relationship, even though Mr. Hrbik does not want to discuss it, which hints that it has some kind of romantic appeal for Elaine, perhaps due to its monumental nature. Instead, he describes his dreams, which all appear to be morose and sexist—like the women wrapped in cellophane, as if they were objects for sale. The moment where he declares that she is his countries alienates Elaine the most, because it appears that he needs her too desperately, much like Cordelia had.
Cordelia has run away from home. She finds Elaine at Murray’s, looking gaunt and distinguished. Elaine wears her work uniform and feels insecure; she feels tired and disheveled. Cordelia is working at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, and though it does not impress her parents, she seems happy. Cordelia tries to get Elaine to remember events from their past, but Elaine does not want to remember. Elaine remembers her wise mouth and thinking that she was wise, but she now believes that she was not wise then and has only just become wise. She has a hard time believing in the distant past, and sees herself reflected like a mirror in Cordelia’s sunglasses. She attends The Tempest on Cordelia’s invitation, but cannot spot her in the crowd.
Elaine and Cordelia anticlimactically reunite for the first time in years. Cordelia’s life does seem to have improved, as she has developed a sense of purpose around her art, but this just serves to enhance the parallels between her and Elaine. Elaine clearly uses Cordelia as a mirror for her own emotions and success, as she is quick to judge her own disheveled state when looking at Cordelia, and she ends up not wanting to connect with her because she does not like to think of the past. Their history remains close to the surface when they see each other, and it disturbs Elaine—at this stage in her life, she seems to want to believe that the future can erase the past and she can have freedom and control. However, Elaine no longer appears to take Cordelia seriously, and even though she attends this play, it’s clear that Cordelia’s power over her has waned when Cordelia completely fades to the background.
In August, Josef starts changing Elaine’s style. He picks clothing and hairstyles for her, and they go on a date at the Park Plaza Hotel Roof Garden. He tells her that he once shot a man, and asks if she would “do anything for him.” She says no. She wonders if he talks about her with Susie the way he discusses Susie with her. Around this time, Jon appears at the Swiss Chalet, where Elaine works. He has a summer job filling in potholes with the Works Department. He asks her for a beer later, and they walk home together. Elaine cries, and they end up kissing and sleeping together that night.
It appears that part of Josef’s interest in Elaine comes from a desire to control her or have power over her: he wants to make her into the woman that he wants to be with, which is a version of love that involves projecting one’s own image onto the other person. Elaine, however, does not feel consumed by him and is able to tell him that she would not do anything for him, though she still seems passive in this relationship. Time is intertwined here, as readers already know that Elaine and Jon’s relationship will lead to marriage and eventual divorce. This creates a tension between the sense of what choices one is free to make, and what things are inevitable—changing the timeline like this makes certain decisions feel inevitable, as though freedom itself were an illusion.