Jeanette, now fourteen, dreams that she is about to be married. She wears a pure white dress and a golden crown, and as she walks down the aisle her crown grows heavy and the dress becomes difficult to walk in—still, no one in attendance at the wedding notices. Jeanette reaches the altar, where a fat priest who keeps getting fatter officiates. Jeanette’s new husband appears to her in this recurring dream as many different things. Sometimes he is blind, sometimes he is a pig, sometimes he is Jeanette’s mother, and sometimes he is a suit of clothes with nothing inside.
Jeanette’s dream reflects her fears about marriage and her uncertainty about men. Jeanette is being raised in a world of women—even her father, whom she lives with, is almost completely absent from her concern or her imagination. Jeanette’s dream shows the many fears she has about marrying a man: that he will be unable to see her as she is, that he will be slovenly, that he will be too much like her mother, or that he will be a man of no substance, strength, or constitution.
In the dream, a woman who lives on Jeanette’s street tells all her neighbors that she has married a pig. Taking her words literally, Jeanette asks why; the woman responds that “you never know until it’s too late.” Jeanette watches the woman’s husband closely. He does indeed have pink skin and narrowly-set eyes just like a pig, and Jeanette thinks him horrid. She doesn’t know any men who look much better, and wonders about what women mean when they say you’ll eventually find the right man. Jeanette is haunted by her dream, and by the pig-like men all around her.
The idea that men are all pigs—greedy, slovenly, unattractive, and gruesome—takes root in Jeanette’s mind at an early age when she is unable to stand the joking and teasing of the women around her. Jeanette fears that she, too, will marry a pig, and fears becoming as blind and gullible as the women all around her.
Jeanette goes to the library, avoiding couples who are kissing in the stacks. Jeanette seeks out a book of fairy tales, and reads the story of “Beauty and the Beast.” Jeanette wonders if her neighbor who is married to a pig has read this story, and imagined her husband would transform on her wedding day. Jeanette closes the book, feeling as though she has “stumbled on a terrible conspiracy.” She wonders what women do when they find they have married a beast—many beasts in stories disguise themselves, and perhaps, she thinks, women all over the world are marrying beasts “in innocence.”
Couples seem to be everywhere, suddenly, as Jeanette is filled with curiosity for the first time about what it means to be in a relationship and relinquish oneself—especially as a woman—to another. As she reads Beauty and the Beast, a popular fairy tale, she is for the first time frightened rather than enlightened by a story, as she begins to wonder if all around the world women are consenting to marry beasts.
That night at her auntie’s house, playing card games, Jeanette asks her aunt why so many men are beasts. Her uncle comes to the table, rubs his beard against Jeanette’s face, and tell her that women wouldn’t love men any mother way. Jeanette’s aunt shoos her husband away, and tells Jeanette that she’ll “get used to it,” and that men “have their little ways.” As Jeanette’s uncle leaves the room, Jeanette watches him go, half-expecting him to have a tail. Jeanette remarks that she doesn’t particularly want a husband; her aunt retorts that there are things one wants, and things one gets. Jeanette is so distracted by her worries about men that she is unable to play cards well, and her aunt sends her home. Jeanette fetches her mother from the parlor, and they leave.
Even in Jeanette’s own family, she sees the banal horror of marrying someone coarse, ugly, and “beastlike” unfold before her. Jeanette has really allowed herself to become consumed by the fear of marrying a man only to discover that she has fallen into a trap. Though Jeanette’s aunt assures her that men are not all bad and can actually be quite charming and appealing, Jeanette is full of fear and unable to focus on anything but her own worry.
On the walk home, Jeanette asks her mother if the two of them can have a talk. Jeanette’s mother offers her an orange, and Jeanette begins telling her mother about her dream and her “beast theory.” While she is telling the story, her mother hums a hymn and peels an orange. Jeanette asks her mother why she married Jeanette’s father, and Jeanette’s mother responds that Jeanette does not need to worry about marriage—she is “dedicated to the Lord,” and her mother has already put her down for missionary school. Jeanette’s mother tells her to “remember Jane Eyre and St. John Rivers,” but Jeanette knows that her mother lied to her about the ending of the novel—Jeanette knows that Jane Eyre returns to Mr. Rochester.
As Jeanette approaches her mother, hoping to talk about her latest great fear and be comforted, her mother offers Jeanette yet another symbolic orange before assuring her that Jeanette will never have to worry about marriage if she doesn’t want to. Again, Jeanette’s mother is framing the narrative of Jeanette’s life as special and apart from everyone else’s. Jeanette knows, though, that her mother has lied to her in the past, and so is unable to take true comfort in her mother’s reassurances—there is a veil of distrust between them now.
On laundry day, Jeanette hides nearby to hear what the women washing their clothes in the alley are saying. Nellie and Doreen, neighbor-women, complain about their husbands—Doreen’s husband is cheating on her with a woman who works at the local pub. Doreen also worries about her daughter, Jane, who is seventeen and spends all her time with a girl named Susan. Doreen remarks that if her daughter isn’t careful, people will think she and her friend are “like them two at the paper shop.” Having heard enough, Jeanette creeps out of hiding and returns home, thinking that it is a good thing she is destined to become a missionary. She puts the problem of men out of her head, and decides to focus on reading the Bible, trusting in the fact that one day she will fall in love just like everyone else.
Jeanette overhears two women from her neighborhood talking about how awful their husbands are before switching the discussion to one woman’s concern that her daughter is not paying enough attention to boys. Jeanette is too young to truly understand the nuances of their conversation, but she understands in a distant way that perhaps marrying a man is not the only option. She takes comfort in the fact that she will not have to marry if she doesn’t want to, and decides to throw herself into religion and wait to fall in love in her own time.
Jeanette’s mother recruits her to run errands in the rain. Jeanette does not want to go, but her mother insists she put her raincoat on and join her. On the bus downtown, they run into May and Ida, one of the women who runs the paper shop. Ida remarks on how grown up Jeanette is and offers her a sweet.
The circumstances and chance meetings around Jeanette seem to be prodding her to realize that heterosexuality is not the only option for her, as she reencounters one of the women who runs the paper shop on the heels of overhearing a conversation about a neighbor’s daughter’s “unnatural passion.”
When the bus arrives downtown, Jeanette asks her mother if she can have a new raincoat; her mother refuses. At the market, Jeanette gets the sleeve of her coat caught on a meat hook, and the sleeve tears off. Jeanette’s mother takes a roll of tape from her purse and reattaches the arm. One of their neighbors sees Jeanette’s mother taping her raincoat together and insists that Jeanette needs a new one. Jeanette, hoping to please her mother, insists that she loves the one she has, but her mother, embarrassed to be seen taping an old raincoat up, informs their neighbor that she’s buying Jeanette a new one that afternoon.
Jeanette’s mother is shown in this passage to still be easily and strongly influenced by the opinions of others, despite her belief that she and her daughter are “apart” from the people and the society around them. Jeanette’s mother does not want to appear poor, cruel, or uncharitable, as this would affect her neighbors’ image of her as a holy, devout, and pure woman.
In a secondhand shop, Jeanette’s mother selects an enormous bright pink raincoat for Jeanette to try on. Jeanette hates the jacket, but her mother insists that it is her new raincoat and she’ll grow into it. As the two of them walk to the fish stall, Jeanette is miserable, and attempts to lift her mood by having a look at the aquarium of fish. There, she catches her first glimpse of a beautiful girl named Melanie, who is hard at work de-boning fish on a marble slab.
Jeanette’s struggle against her mother is quickly put out of her mind by the sight of Melanie—who, as if in a fairy tale or one of Jeanette’s fanciful stories, is alluring and enchanting from Jeanette’s very first glimpse of her.
Jeanette strikes up a conversation with Melanie, and the two banter back and forth. Jeanette’s mother comes to fetch her, telling her it’s time to go to a nearby pub, where they have plans to meet up with Ida and May. When Jeanette turns around, Melanie is gone. While Jeanette’s mother, Ida, and May have drinks at the pub, their waitress recruits Jeanette to wash glasses for some cash. Jeanette is happy to have a task she can do that allows her some free time to think about the fish stall and Melanie.
Jeanette is experiencing her first taste of infatuation. Fittingly, having been raised in a world of women, she is entranced by another girl, and must confront these strange new feelings in the company of her mother and her mother’s female friends.
Each week, Jeanette goes back to the fish stall to watch Melanie work. One day, Melanie is not at work, and Jeanette stares at the seafood, feeling miserable. She is just about to leave when at last she sees Melanie approaching. Melanie tells Jeanette she’s gotten a job at the library, working Saturdays. Jeanette asks Melanie if she’d like to go get a baked potato, and the two of them eat lunch together. Jeanette tells Melanie about church, and about how she is dedicated to the Lord. Jeanette invites Melanie to church, and Melanie accepts.
As Jeanette and Melanie learn more about each other, Jeanette longs to relate more deeply to her new friend. Jeanette, like her mother before her, has no real way of connecting outside of the context of church and religion, and so does the only thing she can think to do: she invites Melanie to come to church with her, hoping that Melanie will be able to see the world from Jeanette’s point of view, and the two of them will be able to relate to one another within the context of holiness and devotion.
The first time that Melanie joins Jeanette at church is, in Jeanette’s words, “not a success.” Pastor Finch is in town, making a pit stop on a long tour of England, and everyone is fawning over the van he travels in, onto which he has painted the phrase “HEAVEN OR HELL? IT’S YOUR CHOICE.” Pastor Finch brings everyone inside to sing some hymns, and the congregation sings excitedly, though Jeanette notices that Melanie is not joining in. Pastor Finch begins bragging about how many souls he has saved on his tour, and describes how he has rescued many people from Unnatural Passions. Jeanette sneaks a glance at Melanie, who looks like she is about to be sick. Jeanette assumes that Melanie has simply caught the Spirit, and squeezes her hand in solidarity.
The day that Jeanette chooses to bring Melanie to church is a particularly tough one—the frightening and hell-obsessed Pastor Finch is in town, and his rhetoric of fear, damnation, and evil is a little bit much for Melanie to deal with at first. To Jeanette, however, this is all rather normal, and she mistakes Melanie’s deep discomfort for a burgeoning spiritual conversion.
At the end of the sermon, Pastor Finch encourages any sinners to raise their hands. Melanie raises her hand, and after the service tells Jeanette that she needs Jesus. She asks Jeanette to be her counselor in Bible study, and Jeanette agrees to visit Melanie’s house each week to counsel her. Every Monday from then on, Jeanette goes to Melanie’s, and the two pray and read the Bible. Melanie is Jeanette’s first real friend other than Elsie, and Jeanette is very excited.
Despite her fear during the sermon, after services are over Melanie offers herself up to the Lord, to the church, to Pastor Finch, and, at last, to Jeanette. She apparently wants to see the world through Jeanette’s eyes, which is all Jeanette ever wanted. Finally Jeanette has found someone who wants to commit herself to holiness and perfection as badly as Jeanette does (or who at least wants to be close to Jeanette in any way possible).
Jeanette talks about Melanie all the time at home, and one day her mother tells her that the two of them need to talk seriously. Jeanette’s mother asks Jeanette if she’s keen on a boy named Graham, a “newish convert” to the church who Jeanette has been teaching to play guitar. Jeanette’s mother tells her that it is time for her to share the tale of Pierre, and pours them each a cup of tea before beginning her story.
Jeanette’s mother seems to be willfully misdirecting Jeanette’s focus to a boy named Graham, who has not even been mentioned by Jeanette as an object of interest, let alone affection. In this passage readers see that Jeanette’s mother has an inkling of what is going on with Jeanette and Melanie, but wants to redirect her daughter’s interests without calling attention to the fact that they are beyond the bounds of “normal.”
As a young woman, Jeanette’s mother secured a teaching job in Paris. Though she was not yet with the Lord, she lived a “clean” life. One day, she met a man named Pierre, and he flattered her by calling her beautiful. The two exchanged addresses and began to court one another, and soon Jeanette’s mother found herself feeling a fizzing feeling in her stomach—not just around Pierre, but all the time. Jeanette’s mother assumed she was in love. One night, Pierre asked her to stay with him, and Jeanette’s mother agreed. A couple of days later, in a “fit of guilty anxiety,” Jeanette’s mother went to the doctor, where after prodding her stomach the doctor asked if she ever felt fizzy in the belly. When she answered that she did, the doctor told her she had a stomach ulcer.
Jeanette’s mother is a natural storyteller, as well, and she launches into this comical tale of her own misbegotten youth as an attempt to save Jeanette from the influence of desire—which her mother sees as dangerous, corruptive, and frivolous. Jeanette’s mother herself was duped once by feelings of infatuation, and could have ruined her life. She wants to keep her daughter from making mistakes in a similar vein, and so tries to connect with Jeanette through their shared love of storytelling and reminiscence.
Jeanette’s mother took the prescribed tablets and stopped seeing Pierre, and the next time she saw him—by chance—she felt no fizzy feeling. She soon fled the country to avoid him. Jeanette’s mother then warns Jeanette to take care: “what you think is the heart might well be another organ.” As Jeanette leaves the house that afternoon to go call on Melanie, Jeanette’s mother calls out to her, warning her never to let anyone touch her “Down There.”
Jeanette’s mother shows her hand, a little bit, when she begs Jeanette not to let anyone touch her sexually just as Jeanette leaves the house to go and visit Melanie. Jeanette’s mother values her daughter’s purity and wants to protect it—she is not so naïve that she is blind to what is happening within Jeanette, even if Jeanette herself has not yet found the words for the feelings she has.
Jeanette arrives at Melanie’s, and Melanie asks her if she’ll spend the night—her mother is away, and Melanie does not like being home alone. After ringing her own mother and getting permission, Jeanette agrees. Jeanette and Melanie read the Bible together, and then thank God for bringing them together. Melanie strokes Jeanette’s hair, and the two embrace. Jeanette is frightened, but she cannot stop herself as she and Melanie begin to make love. Jeanette feels as if she has an octopus inside of her.
As Jeanette and Melanie finally confront their desire for one another, Jeanette’s feeling of having an octopus in her stomach mirrors the feeling her mother described of a strange fizziness, though what Jeanette describes herself as feeling is decidedly more animal, more physical, and more alien, and thus is rendered through the bizarre and slightly uncanny symbol of the octopus.
After that night, Jeanette and Melanie are inseparable. They do everything together, and Jeanette stays over at Melanie’s as often as she can. Jeanette notices that her mother does not say anything about how much time the two of them are spending together, and if anything just seems relieved that Jeanette is not really seeing Graham anymore. One night, Jeanette asks Melanie if she thinks that the two of them are engaged in Unnatural Passion; Melanie says she doesn’t think so, as Pastor Finch describes Unnatural Passion as awful and painful.
Jeanette and Melanie, as they embark upon their relationship, seem to be flying under the radar. The girls are slightly conflicted about what they are doing together, but it feels so good, pure, and holy to both of them that neither of them can imagine that it would ever be seen as “unnatural” or unholy.
Melanie and Jeanette have volunteered to work together setting up the church’s Harvest Festival Banquet, and the two of them work hard in church making everything nice and beautiful. When the congregation arrives and sits down to dinner, Melanie and Jeanette stand on the balcony looking down on them, and feel happy and safe, as if everyone below them is their family.
Melanie and Jeanette are truly happy, and feel comforted, embraced, and secure in their community. Nevertheless, there is the fact of their relationship, which despite the comfort and security they feel, each seems to know on some level is taboo and would be frowned upon.
In a metaphorical, lyrical passage, the Harvest Banquet transforms into a medieval feast, where the chandeliers overhead are shaken every now and then by recurring tremors. The guests look up in interest rather than fear. Outside the banquet hall, the river is frozen; nearby, an army sleeps, waiting to guard the “elect” and elite who attend the banquet. Outside the hall, there is suddenly a rush of torches as the rebels storm the Winter Palace.
Jeanette and Melanie, happy and carefree at the moment, settle into their Harvest Banquet, unaware of the “rebels with torches” ready to storm the “palace” of young love they have created. There is a true sense of foreboding in this passage, but Melanie and Jeanette are blind to the pain, anger, and danger that is hurtling their way.