The night they arrive back in New York, Aunt Penniman chatters away to Catherine about how well she has gotten to know Morris in the past year. Catherine is ambivalent, glad to speak freely of Morris but unhappy to hear Lavinia boast of her superior knowledge of her fiancé, and to hear that Morris used to sit in Dr. Sloper’s study. She is delighted, however, to learn that Morris has just gotten a job as a commission-merchant (trader).
Catherine’s homecoming is a mixed pleasure, as Aunt Penniman’s meddlesomeness flares up once again, and Catherine is disturbed by her aunt’s presumption in letting Morris spend time in Dr. Sloper’s study in his absence. It is also somewhat suspect that Morris spent most of the past year unemployed and only found a position days before the Slopers’ return.
Aunt Penniman asks whether Catherine succeeded in her efforts to sway Dr. Sloper while they were abroad, and Catherine explains that although this had been Morris’s plan, she had always known it wouldn’t work. She tells Aunt Penniman that she is much braver than before she left, and Aunt Penniman is struck by Catherine’s brightness and maturity as she talks of the future.
Catherine has changed in Europe, and after a year’s separation, this is clear to Aunt Penniman—Catherine speaks much more confidently about her opinions and plans and isn’t so readily swayed by what others think she should do.
Catherine abruptly asks why Aunt Penniman seems to change her mind so much, at one time telling Catherine to defy her father, but now suggesting that she placate him. Catherine explains that she has been as good as she could be, and it has made no difference; she will no longer strive to please Dr. Sloper. This is “a more authoritative speech” than Aunt Penniman has ever heard from Catherine, and she is “proportionately startled.”
Catherine sees through Aunt Penniman’s fickle nature, which has always been more concerned with satisfying her longing for romance and drama than with what’s best for Catherine. The crux of Catherine’s transformation is that she’s learned that her efforts to please both her father and herself will never work. Aunt Penniman doesn’t know what to make of her newly confident niece.