After Marilyn’s visit to Louisa’s apartment, James gets dressed in a hurry. He returns to find the house suspiciously peaceful and silent. Marilyn is sitting at Lydia’s desk. She asks James how long the affair has been going on, and he replies that it began the day of the funeral. Marilyn asks how old Louisa is and remarks that she seems “sweet” and “docile,” and that she would make a “nice little wife.” She says she knows Louisa’s “type,” claiming it’s the type of woman Doris hoped Marilyn would be. James is infuriated by Marilyn’s mention of her mother, recalling the sting of Doris’ disappointment in their marriage.
Whether Marilyn intends to or not, the language she uses to describe Louisa is tinged with racist stereotypes about Asian women. Although Louisa is young, she is still an adult woman, and Marilyn cruelly belittles her by calling her “docile” and a “nice little wife.” Furthermore, there seems to be little basis in this accusation other than Louisa’s youth and race. Like Marilyn, Louisa is smart, ambitious, and on track to have a distinguished career.
James mocks Marilyn for wanting to be different when she doesn’t know what it’s really like to be different, to be ignored and taunted to her face. Marilyn describes times when she was mocked in the laboratory at Radcliffe, but adds that she didn’t care because she knew she wanted to be a doctor. Marilyn bitterly accuses James of always encouraging Lydia to fit in, while Marilyn “wanted her to be exceptional.” Marilyn adds that now James can marry Louisa, and that Marilyn only hopes Louisa won’t regret giving up her academic career. James responds, “Like you do?” and Marilyn orders him to leave the house. As he goes, James suggests they pretend that they never met and that Lydia was never born.
The viciousness of James and Marilyn’s argument is made possible by two factors: how well they know each other, and how long they have been repressing the truth. While both James and Marilyn have spent their marriage deliberately ignoring and suppressing their true feelings, this does not mean they were not aware that those feelings existed. Indeed, they seem to understand each other far better than either of them let on prior to this argument.
On his way out, James passes Nath and Hannah, but says nothing to them. After James leaves, Nath grabs his car keys and, in spite of Hannah’s protests, drives away too. Upstairs, Marilyn sits in Lydia’s room and thinks of all the years Doris spent alone in her house. Marilyn rips in half the postcard of Einstein she gave Lydia, followed by the periodic table. She pulls down Lydia’s prize ribbons and all her science books. Once all the books are gone, Marilyn notices one more—the Betty Crocker cookbook. She realizes that after she came back from Toledo, Lydia’s claim to have “lost” the cookbook was a lie; really, she wanted to hide it so Marilyn would never have to see it again. Suddenly, Marilyn is overcome by the realization that Lydia didn’t love science—she loved Marilyn, and simply wanted to make her happy. Marilyn realizes that perhaps the pressure she put on Lydia was what forced her into the lake. A small girl walks in, and for a moment Marilyn believes it is Lydia; upon realizing it is a teary-eyed Hannah, Marilyn embraces her.
It is arguably not unreasonable that Marilyn spent so long believing that Lydia genuinely loved science, considering how enthusiastically Lydia responded to Marilyn’s suggestions that they pursue scientific activities together. At the same time, Marilyn’s desire for Lydia to be follow in her own footsteps meant that she approached her relationship with her daughter with the presupposition that Lydia would also want to be a doctor, rather than by first asking what Lydia herself wanted. The fact that what Lydia wanted more than anything was her mother’s love makes Marilyn’s realization all the more tragic. Her embrace of Hannah at the end of the scene suggests she may have now learned to accept Hannah for who she is.
On the other side of Middlewood, Nath is at the liquor store. He has set a small bottle of whisky on the counter, though he is convinced that the store owner will turn him away for being too young. However, the owner asks if Nath is the brother of “the girl who died,” and when Nath replies that he is, the owner gives him a second bottle of whisky and refuses to let Nath pay. Nath drives to a secluded spot and gulps the whisky down. It doesn’t have the effect he desires—rather than soothing him, the alcohol causes the world around him to feel even more intense and frenetic than before. Nath thinks of the look on James’ face as he left the house, and vomits onto the ground. Meanwhile, James has been driving aimlessly, but now he sees that he is 15 miles from Toledo. He reflects that it is significant that both he and Marilyn chose the same place to run away.
While Marilyn and Hannah have finally turned to one another for comfort, the men of the family have once again “disappeared.” Both James and Nath seem to be consumed by a mix of anger and guilt. Unable to express these feelings verbally, they flee the rest of the family. Note that both James and Nath have turned to stereotypical masculine vices—drinking and adultery—as outlets for their grief, vices that do not suit either of their personalities. Without a viable way of expressing their feelings, both father and son are reduced to clichés.
James thinks about the way in which he has been branded as “different” from the moment he was born. Marilyn, on the other hand, sought out difference, and was able to confront it by “filling her head with dreams.” However, James then thinks about the fact that Marilyn is now boxed into the life of a housewife in a small-town community, stuck like a “trapped bee.” He cannot quite articulate how he feels, but he is stunned by how wrong he has been. Back in Middlewood, Nath feels a gentle hand on his shoulder, along with encouraging words. At first he thinks it might be James, but James has never spoken to him in this way. It is in fact Officer Fiske, who tells Nath, “Son, it’s time to go home.” Nath is so stunned by Fiske’s kindness that he begins to cry.
This scene represents a turning point in the novel. Finally, James is able to empathetically connect his own feelings of marginalization, mistreatment, and disappointment to Marilyn’s. Although the two of them face very different struggles, this does not mean that they must face them in isolation. Meanwhile, Nath’s assumption that Officer Fiske was his father—followed by the realization that the officer is being nicer than his father ever was—demonstrates how desperate Nath is for his father’s love.