The narrator begins this section by describing the unseasonably warm December weather. Irene is on her way home, wishing that the season were colder, so that it would feel more like Christmas. However, Irene admits to herself that she isn’t in the Christmas spirit anyway. Lately she has been suffering from a deep melancholy. Irene mounts the steps of her house and goes into the kitchen.
In this section, Larsen makes it clear that Irene’s mental state has been deteriorating since the beginning of the book. It is unclear exactly what the reason for this is, but it could be any number of factors: her attraction to Clare, her worries about Ted and Junior, her marriage to Brian.
Irene asks Zulena and Sadie if there is anything to be done before guests arrive for tea, and they tell her it is all prepared. Irene is happy about this. She wishes that she weren’t about to entertain company. Irene goes upstairs and gets into bed. She worries about Brian, who is moody and reserved. Irene cannot read his discontent, and thinks it has to do with his desire to move to South America. Brian’s behavior confuses her, because Irene thinks that, although he seems unhappy, he acts as if he is harboring a secret pleasure. Irene thinks that Brian seems like he is waiting for something, but she cannot pinpoint what. Irene is surprised and anxious that she cannot decipher why Brian is acting so strangely.
Irene’s marriage to Brian is becoming more and more strained—in fact, it’s clearly toxic. Irene manipulates Brian into doing what she wants and Brian then sulks. Irene’s sense that Brian is harboring a secret pleasure heavily suggests some kind of sexual transgression. Interestingly enough, Irene never thinks of her romantic or sex life in the limited third person narrative, and their relationship seems fairly chaste. Clearly, Irene harbors intense sexual anxiety.
Irene naps, exhausted from many sleepless nights of worrying. She wakes up to Brian standing next to her bed and looking at her. Brian tells Irene that it is almost four, meaning that Irene will, as usual, be late. Irene thanks him for waking her. Brian informs Irene that Clare is already downstairs, and Irene responds with annoyance, saying that she did not invite her. Irene explains that the tea party is for Hugh, and Hugh does not especially like Clare. Brian suggests that Hugh might not like Clare just because Clare has never flirted with him.
This section makes it clear that Brian also sees Clare as someone who is charged with sexual energy, and that it is not only Irene who thinks that. When Brian says Hugh does not like Clare because of her lack of sexual interest in him, the reader could imagine that Irene subconsciously dislikes Clare for the same reason— Clare has not shown sexual interest in her either.
Irene objects to and is surprised by Brian’s comment. Brian says that Hugh has a godly opinion of himself, and Irene dryly corrects him, saying that Hugh thinks of himself much more highly than that.
Brian and Irene quip back and forth, using humor only somewhat effectively to dilute the tension of the conversation.
Irene lays out the clothes she is going to wear and then sits at her dressing table. Brian says nothing and stares at Irene without seeming to really see her. Irene tells Brian that Hugh prefers intelligent women, and Brian asks if Irene thinks Clare is stupid.
Larsen gives the reader another scene in which Irene is putting on makeup and picking out clothing, highlighting her vanity.
Irene says no, but that she’s intelligent enough “in a purely feminine way.” Brian sees this comment as somewhat catty, but Irene objects, saying that no one admires Clare’s brand of intelligence, as well as her “decorative qualities,” more than she does. Irene then goes on to compare Clare to Felise Freeland, who is beautiful and smart. She then says that Clare would “bore a man like Hugh to suicide,” and turns the conversation back to Clare having shown up uninvited to the party.
Irene’s comment that Clare is intelligent in a “purely feminine way” seems to have an underlying sexual meaning, implying that Clare uses her sex appeal cunningly to her advantage. Moreover, Irene’s discussion of Clare shows how much Irene focuses on Clare’s beauty and aesthetic value, which, again, could be read as profound sexual attraction.
After a moment of silence, Brian admits to having invited Clare to the party. Irene is furious, and as she speaks, her voice has a strange edge to it. She notices that Brian has tensed up. Suddenly, she suspects that Brian’s strange behavior is due to the fact that Clare and Brian are having an affair.
Irene’s assumption that Brian and Clare are having an affair might strike the reader as unfounded, as she has no concrete evidence of infidelity. It is possible that they are having an affair, but completely uncertain.
Irene completely changes her tune and tells Brian she is glad that Clare is coming. Brian returns downstairs. Irene tells him she will be right down, and Brian asks if she is sure it is all right that he has invited Clare. Irene waves him off, but he continues standing in the room, saying nothing, before finally leaving. Irene, although outwardly collected, is very upset about the idea that Clare and Brian could be having an affair. She looks in the mirror and tries not to cry, but finally lays her head down and weeps. When she is done crying, Irene splashes water on her face and looks at herself in the mirror. She powders her face and thinks to herself that she has been a fool.
Though Irene’s suspicion is not grounded in anything specific, Irene is profoundly upset by the idea of Brian and Clare sleeping together. Irene’s sadness, however, is not focused specifically on Brian’s infidelity, and so the reader could read an ambiguity into the scene: is Irene distraught because Brian betrayed her or because Clare did? Finally, the reader observes Irene, always concerned with her looks, putting powder back on her face before the party.
Irene heads downstairs, where she happily busies herself with entertaining the tea guests so she does not have to think about the possibility that Brian is cheating on her with Clare. The guests make small talk, and Irene responds to questions about a decoration that Brian bought on a trip to Haiti. Irene feels profoundly exhausted. Still, she pours tea and chitchats, taking in the sounds of sociability, laughter, and teaspoons clinking against cups. The party is going successfully.
Although Irene is completely devastated by her theory about Brian and Clare, she continues with the party, keeping up appearances. The mention of the decoration that Brian brought from Haiti clues the reader in to the fact that Brian has been travelling, and thus the Redfield’s martial problems may not be due to Brian’s wanderlust, but to other issues.
Irene thinks this is like so many other parties she has hosted, but also so unlike them. Irene tells herself she has plenty of time later to think over her revelation that Brian might be cheating on her. Irene has an impulse to lash out and make a scene, but she does not.
Irene masks her inner turmoil at the party, as she does in many other earlier instances, by fighting with Brian, spending time with Clare, etc. Clearly Irene spends a lot of time hiding her emotions and putting on a happy face.
Instead, Irene makes small talk with Felise Freeland. Felise notes that Irene looks strained, and asks what is wrong. Irene says she is under the weather, and Felise tells her to go shopping, then asks about Irene’s sons. Irene thinks that, for once, she has forgotten about them, and tells Felise they are fine. Felise tells Irene she is going to go talk with Clare, who is sitting by herself, and who she wants to invite to a party.
That Irene has forgotten about her sons “for once” speaks to how big a part of her life Ted and Junior are. It also shows the reader how distracted Irene is by her worries about Clare and Brian having an affair. Irene cannot maintain the appearance of normality, and others notice.
Felise, before leaving her, comments that Clare looks stunning. Irene agrees, and takes in Clare’s fine clothes. Irene spots Hugh across the room near the bookshelves, and hopes he is not bored. Irene sees that Hugh is looking scornfully at Clare. Clare is talking with Brian, and as Irene watches them, they remind her again of her suspicion of infidelity. Irene thinks that Clare’s white face looks like a mask, hiding her true self, while Brian, smiling, seems to be an open book. Irene looks away, but then looks back again.
Felise’s kind words about Clare’s looks draw Irene’s attention back to Clare. Yet again, Irene obsesses over Clare’s beauty, gushing about her gorgeous clothing and face. Again, this could be read as sexual attraction. When Irene describes Clare’s face as a mask, Larsen suggests that passing as a white person is a kind of costuming.
Irene makes social plans with the party guests, but feels apathetic and tired. She eavesdrops on Clare talking to Dave Freeland, and hears Clare’s charming compliments to Dave. Irene notes that Clare bewitches Dave, despite the fact Irene thinks Clare is stupid, and Dave is a successful novelist married to Felise.
As usual, it is hard to tell whether Irene gives an accurate portrayal of Clare. Is Clare really seducing Dave? Or is it Irene’s obsession with Clare’s sexuality that makes her view a polite conversation as a flirtation?
Irene thinks again about the possibility that Brian and Clare are sleeping together, and wonders what will happen to her and the boys if that is the case. Irene feels that she means nothing to Brian beyond being the mother of his children.
Irene, enraged at this thought, drops her teacup (whether intentionally or unintentionally it is unclear). It shatters and spills tea everywhere. Everyone in the room stops talking and looks at her. Zulena hurries to clean it up. Hugh, who is suddenly at her side, apologizes, says he must have pushed her, and asks if the cup was valuable. Irene, recovering from her emotional pain, is pridefully unhappy that Hugh has covered for her. She thinks he realizes that Irene is jealous of Clare and suspects infidelity. Irene wants to dissuade him from this suspicion, so Irene steels herself, and then turns to Hugh and tells him that he did not push her.
Irene’s inner strife has boiled over: she drops her teacup, which shows her rapidly deteriorating mental health. Irene believes that Hugh, who helps her by blaming himself for the teacup breaking, suspects also that Clare and Brian are having an affair. As usual, it is difficult to tell whether or not Hugh’s understanding of the situation is a figment of Irene’s paranoia. Irene, always concerned with appearances, tries to throw Hugh off.
Irene says that, instead, she broke the cup on purpose because she thinks it is ugly. Irene tells Hugh it was a Confederate cup owned by Brian’s great-great-granduncle. Hugh nods, and Irene wonders if she has convinced him. Irene, forcing herself to laugh, tells Hugh that she will let him take the blame and say he pushed her so Brian won’t be mad.
Irene makes small talk with Clare, which the narrator tells using only conversation fragments spoken by Irene. The clock chimes, and Irene is surprised that only an hour has passed. Irene bids everyone goodbye. She is in tremendous amounts of emotional pain, but decides that it does not matter as long as no one suspects as she does that Brian and Clare are having an affair.
Irene’s conviction that it does not matter if Brian and Clare are having an affair as long as no one knows speaks to Irene’s obsession with correct appearances. It’s clear that this superficiality causes Irene anxiety and makes Irene repress any thoughts that she deems unsavory or abnormal.