Summary: The fur coat

Iris returns to narrating her childhood memories, describing how Laura becomes increasingly sensitive and anxious in the wake of their mother’s death. Despite some supervision from Reenie, Iris and Laura are often left more or less alone. Reenie frets that both girls are developing bad habits as a result of so little supervision or socialization.

Summary: The Weary Soldier

Shortly after the death of his wife, Norval Chase commissions a sculpture as part of the local war memorial. Despite controversy, he hires a young female sculptor named Callista Fitzsimmons. Callista becomes a frequent visitor at Avilion, and her friends also come to stay as guests, introducing a youthful and bohemian atmosphere. Laura and Iris are entranced by Callista, but Reenie is openly disapproving. The monument is finally unveiled in a grand ceremony in November 1928. After listening to speeches about sacrifice and overhearing stories from Reenie about suicides in the river, Laura jumps into the river and Iris pulls her out. Afterward, Laura explains that she thought that if she sacrificed herself, her mother would come back to life.

Summary: Miss Violence

With little supervision, Laura and Iris can readily roam the streets of the town. They receive private tutoring at home from a woman they nickname Miss Violence. Iris enjoys reading, while Laura excels at art. As Iris enters puberty, her father becomes more stern and controlling with both his daughters, leaving them confused. When Iris starts her first period, both girls are confused and frightened by the idea of growing up. They want to please their father but don’t understand how.

Summary: Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Eventually, Norval decides his daughters are not getting sufficient education and replaces Miss Violence with a man named Mr. Erskine. Mr. Erskine is very strict and uses physical punishment on the girls. Reenie is very upset with his abuse but is unable to intervene. However, when Reenie and Iris learn that Mr. Erskine has been molesting Laura, Reenie publicly informs Norval that she found pornography in Mr. Erskine’s room, forcing Norval to fire the man or risk a public scandal. Most likely, Reenie planted the photos herself in order to ensure she could get rid of the tutor. Meanwhile, the Depression has impacted finances, and life at Avilion is much more frugal. As Iris reaches the age of sixteen, it is clear that she is on the cusp of a transition to a new life stage, but it is not clear how she will get there.

Summary: The button factory picnic

By now, it is September in Iris’s present-day narrative. On her walks, she visits a deserted stretch of land and reminisces about how this was once the site where her father held an annual Labor Day picnic for all of his employees. One year, when Iris is seventeen and Laura is fourteen, Iris is surprised to find that Richard Griffen has been invited to the picnic by her father. In addition to being business rivals, the two men also differ in their political views. At the picnic, Iris finds Laura talking to a young man named Alex Thomas, to whom she has been introduced by Callista. A passer-by takes a picture of them before Reenie comes over and scolds them for talking to a strange man. Nonetheless, Laura has already invited Alex to join them for dinner.

Summary: Loaf givers

As the family prepares for dinner, everyone is irritated by Laura’s impulsive decision to invite Alex. No one seems to know anything about his history or what he currently does for a living. Alex tells Laura that he was studying to become a minister but then had a crisis of faith. At the dinner, Richard is joined by his married sister, Winifred, who is very elegant and snobbish. Under the scrutiny of Winifred and Richard, Iris feels self-conscious about her somewhat old-fashioned and dowdy home. Her father, however, is distracted by political disagreements with Alex, who seems to hold left-leaning principles. Later on, Alex reveals that he was born in an Eastern European country and was adopted by the Red Cross after both of his parents were killed in the war.

Analysis: Part V, Part 1

As Laura and Iris grow older, they suffer more and more from neglect and lack of affection. Reenie functions as a surrogate parent, but she does not have any true authority, so she finds it hard to guide the actions of the girls. Reenie also lacks education and comes from a different social class, so she doesn’t have experience with things the girls should learn to help them navigate their future lives as upper-class women. Still, when circumstances are desperate, Reenie’s cunning and street-smarts allow her to protect Laura more effectively than Laura’s own family members. When Laura first confides to Iris that Mr. Erskine is molesting her, Laura doesn’t seem to understand that what is happening to her is wrong. She has been so sheltered that she has never been taught that she has any agency over her own body. Because Iris is also quite naïve, she doesn’t believe what Laura tells her. This moment of denial foreshadows how Iris will later ignore the abuse Laura suffers at Richard’s hands. Out of the whole family, Reenie is the only one who sees a need to take immediate action and is able to execute it effectively.

Callista Fitzsimmons provides an alternative model of feminine identity in the novel. Given how conservative and old-fashioned Norval Chase is, it is surprising that he chooses Callista as his mistress. She is independent, free-thinking, strong-willed, and creative. As Laura eventually goes on to become an author, this exposure to Callista, a woman who devotes her life to creating art rather than being a wife or mother, may be a formative influence. Choosing to pursue a relationship with Callista also shows that Norval is not as rigid and domineering as he seems—at least in some aspects. However, it is also clear that while he might like having Callista as his mistress, he is not going to marry her because she does not come from the right background and social standing. Likewise, Callista’s relationship with Norval gives her access to wealth and luxury which she likely desires on some level, even though on the surface she seems to value living a bohemian and independent life.

By forming an alliance with Richard Griffen, Norval shows his increasing desperation and lack of options for his business. The two men were formerly business rivals with opposing political perspectives, but Norval now needs to take whatever allies he can find if he wants to keep his business afloat. The fact that Richard starts to attend social functions (not just business ones), and brings his sister along, provides clues that his eventual marriage to Iris is already on his mind. Iris, however, is too innocent to consider the possibility that she might be used as a pawn in her father’s business dealings. Iris is preoccupied with the intimidating Winifred, who, in a sense, functions as a direct contrast to Callista. While Callista gains power through independence, Winifred gains power through her close relationship to her brother. Winifred is also good at making other people feel inferior, and Iris has enough of a sense of sophistication to know that she cannot compete with Winifred’s refinement and social knowledge.

When Alex Thomas enters the narrative, he disrupts the course of events which was intended to shape the lives of Iris and Laura. As an orphan, Alex exists almost entirely without family context, which contrasts directly with the loaded expectations created by being born into a family with generations of history and traditions to preserve. Laura finds the freedom and blank slate Alex represents to be fascinating, but for more conservative individuals, Alex is suspicious because he can’t be conveniently located within a social hierarchy. Alex’s political views also don’t endear him to the upper-class social circle. The juxtaposition between Alex and Richard is heightened by the two men being introduced into Iris’s life at the same time. Alex and Richard will become the two men Iris will be torn between. The central conflict of Iris’s life is introduced at this gathering, all due to a chance encounter and Laura’s impulsive behavior.