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Summary: Chapter 59

Elaine graduates from university and takes more night classes at the art college. Finally, she gets a job in advertising and an apartment of her own. Jon makes fun of her domesticity but prefers going to her place to staying at his.

Elaine’s parents move to Sault Ste. Marie. Her father believes Toronto has become too polluted.

Elaine begins to receive brief postcards from Stephen. He describes getting married and divorced as if he had no agency in either of these things. Elaine attends one of Stephen’s lectures. After the lecture, Elaine attempts to reminisce, but Stephen appears reluctant to talk about their past. She wonders if he resented having a younger sister tagging after him and hates that they don’t remember the same things about their childhood.

Summary: Chapter 60

Now Jon paints commercial objects to talk about icons and commercialism. Elaine feels he could use her professional advice but doesn’t offer it. Although Elaine doesn’t keep the house clean for herself, when Jon stays over, she tidies up. 

One day Elaine realizes she’s pregnant. She panics, assuming Jon will tell her to get an abortion. 

Elaine starts painting still lifes, including one of  a washing machine with a wringer the color of pink skin. Another painting depicts three sofas with a broken egg in a giant egg cup on the middle one. Finally, she paints a sprig of nightshade in a glass jar with cats’ eyes peeking out from between the leaves.

She paints multiple paintings of Mrs. Smeath, her eyes accusing Elaine of everything being her fault. 

Analysis: Chapters 56–60

In present-day Toronto, Elaine has now twice given financial support to women in need to cope with her feelings of guilt. We do not yet know why Elaine feels guilty, although from her response to Susie’s hospitalization, we can guess that she failed to support another woman and now tries to atone by funding women in need. At first approach, Elaine assumes both these women to be Cordelia. Elaine flinches from the drunk woman when she realizes the woman has the same eye color as Cordelia, and so Elaine’s guilt in these instances likely foreshadows that Elaine will fail to help Cordelia in some way. Elaine’s automatic assumption that the Middle Eastern woman hates her appears consistent with her beliefs about how women relate to each other, but her comment about Stephen’s death opens the possibility that this hatred also involves a war Canada participates in. Elaine’s guilt over the woman is twofold: both for a failure to help Cordelia and for the war. Elaine uses extremely vague language here, conflating multiple cultures under the phrase “Middle Eastern,” which suggests Elaine doesn’t understand either where the woman came from or Stephen’s death, but she still feels the need to atone.

Elaine’s behavior around Susie and pregnancy demonstrates how her learned judgement and shame have isolated her from other women. Susie presumably turns to Elaine for support because she considers Elaine a friend or, at least, a woman her age who knows her situation and can help. Susie therefore expects sisterhood from Elaine, the kind of unconditional bonding together against a threat that Marjorie and Babs displayed when Mr. Hrbik made Susie cry in class. While Elaine helps Susie, she denies Susie true sisterhood by immediately calling Mr. Hrbik without asking Susie if she wants him to know about the abortion. Elaine also axiomatically judges Susie’s behavior, with her mind echoing the very words Mrs. Smeath used to describe Elaine’s bullying. She does this even though Elaine herself is also having an affair with Mr. Hrbik. Elaine believes, based on her childhood experiences, that women always deserve their pain and suffering because, as she learned in women’s magazines, women are always doing something wrong. In Elaine’s dream about Susie, Susie takes on the role of Carol Campbell, naïve but still dangerous. This dream highlights that while Elaine now recognizes that she’d misjudged Susie as scheming and sly, Elaine still doesn’t trust Susie enough to bond with her.

Elaine’s developing art style in these chapters combines her particular struggles as a woman painter and her inability to cope with her traumatic past. None of the artists Elaine studies in school are women, and these male artists paint women in the same way they paint food—for consumption—which leaves her with no female role models. Elaine’s interest in painting reflective objects hints at her desire to find a mirror, someone like her, in the art world. Once again, the Virgin Mary is the only woman Elaine has encountered in art who resonates with her, and accordingly, Elaine turns to egg tempera, the medium of the Mary paintings, as a tool to develop her style. In addition, Elaine’s artwork always gazes into the past in the way she paints images from her childhood, including her painting of Mrs. Smeath, which represents her unreconciled feelings of shame from her youth. As Elaine once looked at those who confused her through her cat’s eye, she now uses the power of distance a painter’s gaze gives her to render Mrs. Smeath, whom she imagines would judge her for her pregnancy, in a way that she can control.

Whereas Elaine’s art looks backward, Jon’s art always chases the present, which demonstrates the relative freedom he has as an aspiring male painter. Jon stops taking art classes after life drawing because he believes art instruction is irrelevant. He doesn’t feel a need to learn from the past because men like him have always painted, and therefore, he doesn’t need to search for role models. Jon’s attitude also contrasts to those of Babs and Marjorie, who still take life drawing despite being professional painters, presumably because they have less room for technical error. We see this double standard for male and female painters comically when Jon begins to paint the same kinds of images Elaine paints for a living—just not as skillfully—and yet considers his work art and hers irrelevant. Jon can make the art he wants on his own terms without concern for precedent, skill level, or labels. Jon’s constant trashing of old styles in favor of new ones also recalls present-day Elaine’s observations about how modern society treats so many things as disposable instead of repairing them. Trapped in her 1940s mindset, Elaine “repairs” the ways in which art history doesn’t serve her, whereas Jon, fully modern, chases fads.