Summary: Chapter 16

Before Elaine left for the retrospective, she told Ben that she didn’t want to go. Ben encouraged her not to, but Elaine said that as a woman artist, it was difficult for her to have a retrospective in the first place, so she must go.

Elaine meets with Charna, who works at Sub-Versions. Charna wants to hang the paintings thematically, but Elaine would prefer a chronological order. Worse for Elaine’s nerves, a reporter named Andrea arrives to interview her.  

Andrea asks Elaine about being a woman artist of her generation, which she assumes to be the seventies. Elaine insists that her generation is the forties because that’s when she grew up. Elaine can sense that Andrea wants to talk about being a woman artist and facing discrimination, and Elaine does everything she can to avoid this narrative. She insists all painters feel devalued and that her husband supports her. She emphasizes her male teacher who taught her to draw naked women. When asked why she paints women, Elaine states that painters paint women. Elaine believes what Andrea is really doing is insulting her clothes and art. 

Summary: Chapter 17

At Grace’s house, Cordelia, Grace, and Elaine play the Eaton’s Catalogue game. Cordelia is particularly fascinated with the brassieres because her older sisters have been going through puberty. She tells the other girls about periods, but Elaine, Grace, and Carol don’t believe her. Cordelia also claims men have carrots between their legs that shoot seeds that make babies. The story seems implausible. Elaine, from her years watching her father study insects, has some idea of which aspects of this story might be true. Cordelia also tells them that boys put their tongues in girls’ mouths when they kiss them. Elaine assumes they would only do this to be repulsive.

Summary: Chapter 18

Mrs. Smeath invites Elaine to go to church with the family that Sunday because she’s heard that Elaine’s family doesn’t go to church. Elaine agrees because it means she will have time alone with Grace, who is still the most popular girl in their group. Elaine’s parents don’t like the idea because they think of church as brainwashing and religion as causing strife and bigotry. Nevertheless, they agree to let her go. 

At church, Elaine imitates Grace in order to properly participate in the service. When they leave the service for Sunday School, Elaine is nervous because she doesn’t know any of the psalms the other students were supposed to have memorized. However, the teacher kindly tells her she hopes to see her next week. Elaine feels included.

After church, Grace and her sisters ask if they can see the trains. Mr. Smeath obliges, and they go to see the street car. Elaine notes that Mr. Smeath wanted to see the trains more than Grace or her sisters. Elaine now believes her parents have kept things from her, like God and psalms, that she was supposed to know. As she goes to bed, the stars outside her window look watchful instead of remote. 

Summary: Chapter 19

At school, the girls and the boys play separately, but, as Elaine observes, while the boys actively exclude the girls, the girls’ exclusion of the boys remains unspoken. Elaine begins to notice the way the boys’ behavior differs from the girls’. The boys yell, wear drab clothes, and point out messy bodily functions. 

Stephen says he has a girlfriend whom he keeps secret from everyone—including the girl herself—except for Elaine. Elaine believes this girlfriend has turned Stephen into a stupider version of himself. Soon, Stephen’s interest in the girlfriend wanes, and he moves on to chemistry. After his chemistry obsession stops, Stephen becomes fascinated with astronomy. He shares the names of the stars and constellations with Elaine. Unlike the stars in the Bible, the stars Stephen tells her about are vast and burn silently.

Summary: Chapter 20

Cordelia has started digging holes in her backyard in an attempt to create one large enough to use as a clubhouse, but they keep caving in. One day, Cordelia, Grace, and Carol take Elaine, dressed as Mary Queen of Scotts, to the hole and place her inside. The girls cover the top of the hole with boards and dirt, trapping Elaine underground. Elaine had thought this was a game, but now realizes that it isn’t. 

Elaine cannot remember her ninth birthday party. She knows she must have had one and that this would have been her first real birthday party, but only can remember vague images. She now hates birthday parties. When she thinks of that birthday, she only can remember nightshade, which isn’t right, but evokes a feeling of grief. 

Analysis: Chapters 16–20

Elaine’s explosive response to Andrea’s questions hints at Elaine’s insecurities and demonstrates her general distrust of other women. Elaine’s reluctance for Andrea to place her into a rote narrative about women artists appears reasonable, but Elaine also lies in her responses to try to hide the ways the narrative applies to her. For example, she insists Ben supports her work, but not only is he not attending the retrospective, he treats it as something Elaine can skip, which suggests he doesn’t see her career as important. We also see Elaine’s desire not to be a “woman artist” in her insistence that she paints women simply because she’s a painter, ignoring that most famous painters in history have been men depicting idealized women. Therefore, she either paints women to fit in with other artists, or she paints women in order to portray women how she’d like to portray them. Finally, Elaine interprets any confusion Andrea expresses as Andrea secretly judging Elaine’s appearance, which Elaine has no actual reason to believe. Elaine doesn’t see Andrea as an individual, but as a woman out to get her, much like she refers to the teenage shoplifters as Cordelia. 

As Elaine’s journey into girlhood continues, we see that suburban socialization not only creates a binary between wild and civilized, but also genders it. Boys can talk about bodily functions and have loud voices, aligning them with nature and the wild, whereas girls have stricter regulations because they align with society and civilization. Elaine’s assessment of French kissing as something a boy would do just to cause disgust places sexuality into the realm of the masculine. Cordelia’s carrot explanation for sex additionally puts the agency of baby-making on men. We also begin to see how this binary has affected Stephen and Elaine in Chapter 19. Stephen, who hasn’t felt peer-pressured into religion, appreciates the stars scientifically, as natural objects. Furthermore, Steven gazes at the stars through his telescope, making them the object of study. In Elaine’s case, a masculine god studies her through the stars, mirroring how she faces scrutiny and surveillance in every aspect of her life. We see another side to this binary in how Elaine considers Steven’s “girlfriend” as another object of interest to Stephen, like his chemistry set. Earlier, Elaine learned that boys face social ridicule for having a sister, and her blaming the girl for making Stephen act stupid acts as an offshoot of this rule. 

When Elaine’s father frets about brainwashing at church, we see that part of Elaine’s suburban culture shock comes from the way her parents act as if they have opted out from societal norms. The Risleys can avoid church, but they cannot avoid the societal expectation that people go to church. Because Elaine’s parents never explained what church is and why some people go, Elaine, who already believes herself to be strange, thinks her parents didn’t teach her something everyone else knew, placing her at a social disadvantage. While Mrs. Smeath actively teaches Grace what she should believe, the Risley family appears to allow Elaine to explore and draw her own conclusions about the world. While freeing in theory, this freedom has left Elaine without a firm identity. Elaine has no label for how her family sees the world other than the one mainstream culture might have for them: heathen. As a result, Elaine is particularly vulnerable to Mrs. Smeath’s conversion attempt.

Cordelia burying Elaine marks a turning point in their relationship when Cordelia labels Elaine as the pariah of their group. Cordelia claims she wants to use the hole as a clubhouse, an exclusive social space, much like the circle of two Elaine feels drawn into when meeting Cordelia. Only when Cordelia can’t dig out space for both of them does she turns the hole into a grave. It is the logistics of digging a hole big enough for a clubhouse that thwart Cordelia, and it is the metaphorical logistics imposed by society that stop Cordelia and Elaine from maintaining their circle of two. Suburbia itself will not allow the structural support for two outcast girls with a love of the messy and macabre. Cordelia’s obsession with holes begins soon after Grace chooses Elaine as her church friend, which makes Elaine appear more accepted. By dressing Elaine as Mary Queen of Scotts and burying her, Cordelia marks Elaine as a rebel or outcast, shifting which girl has to be the odd one out and saving Cordelia’s position as the only one of the two who can be accepted in society. The hole thus goes from clubhouse—a place of comradery—to a rebel’s grave—an eternal prison, and Elaine goes from having friends to being a social pariah.