Summary: Chapter 21

After the interview, Elaine goes to Simpson’s Department Store for food. She looks disdainfully at the displays because she thinks modern life has too many disposable items. She gets on the wrong escalator and ends up in the girls’ clothing section. 

She thinks of being in elementary school and how she would peel the skin off her feet at night because the pain gave her something to cling to during the day. Elaine remembers how afraid she felt when she had daughters. She didn’t think she knew how to handle them or protect them. To her surprise, Anne and Sarah didn’t need protecting.

Summary: Chapter 22

Cordelia announces that she, Grace, and Carol will help improve Elaine so that she becomes like other girls. Elaine starts trying to delay leaving for school in the mornings because Cordelia, Grace, and Carol spend the entire day trying to improve her. Because Carol is in the same class as Elaine, she reports on Elaine’s behavior to the others. Elaine knows she must never tell anyone about her friends’ torment. She believes that they act this way because they’re her friends and not because they hate her. 

Summary: Chapter 23

Some days, Carol takes on the role of the girl who needs to improve, but she cries too easily. Other days, the game stops entirely, but Elaine always feels that she’s being watched. 

Elaine starts making excuses to go home after school and claims she needs to help her mother around the house. She likes helping with the laundry because she enjoys running the clothes through the wringer. She imagines her hand getting caught in the ringer and coming out flattened and neat. The girls eventually catch on to Elaine’s excuses and order her to ask if she can come play. Elaine’s mother gives Elaine permission. 

On Sundays, Elaine goes to church with the Smeaths. Grace reports on Elaine’s behavior at Sunday school. The girls ridicule Elaine both for doing too well on her Sunday school quizzes and not well enough. 

Once at Sunday dinner, Mr. Smeath makes a joke about beans. Mrs. Smeath reprimands him, but he insists Elaine found it funny. Elaine doesn’t get the joke. At school the next day, the girls torment Elaine for not understanding that Mr. Smeath told a fart joke. Despite her shock at Mr. Smeath’s impropriety, Elaine thinks of Mr. Smeath as part of the world of the zoology building, which subverts Grace’s world of Eaton’s catalog ladies. She isn’t sure which world Cordelia belongs to.

Summary: Chapter 24

Elaine watches Cordelia perform in a theater production of The Wind in the Willows. Because Cordelia’s costume has a mask, Elaine cannot tell where Cordelia is on stage, which makes Elaine nervous. 

Elaine’s family invites her father’s Indian graduate student, Mr. Banerji, to Thanksgiving dinner. Elaine finds him fascinating because, like her, he seems out of place. 

Elaine’s father explains that domesticated turkeys are unintelligent and flightless, whereas wild turkeys are actually quite smart. Elaine realizes that wild things are smarter than tame ones and begins to divide the people she knows into wild and tame. Her family, Mr. Banerji, and Cordelia fall into the category of wild, whereas Carol and Grace are tame. Elaine now looks at eating the turkey wings as eating lost flight.

Summary: Chapter 25

Elaine’s neighbor, Mrs. Finestein, offers Elaine a job taking her baby son, Brian, for a walk. One day, Cordelia, Grace, and Carol accost Elaine while she’s walking Brian. They inform Elaine disdainfully that Finestein is a Jewish name.

Elaine asks her parents what Jewish means, and they explain that Judaism is a religion and discuss Hitler’s murder of Jewish people during World War II.

During another outing, Carol asks if she can push the pram, but Elaine is afraid of Brian getting hurt. Carol and Grace make antisemitic comments in response, and Cordelia tricks Elaine into calling Elaine’s father a rude term for a gay person. Elaine feels she’s failed Mrs. Finestein and her father. 

Elaine takes her earnings from walking Brian and buys candy to share with her friends. Their gratitude makes her feel loved. 

Analysis: Chapters 21–25

Throughout these chapters, Elaine ties her friends’ desire to improve her to physical pain, underscoring that any attempt to make Elaine fit into suburban girlhood involves fundamentally changing who she is. The way her friends cloak violence in a kind, helpful word like “improve” mirrors Elaine’s experience in suburbia as a whole. Suburbia is meant to be safe and orderly, but Elaine finds it alienating, confusing, and oppressive.  Elaine’s fascination with how tidy her hand would be after going through the wringer emphasizes that Elaine thinks of becoming something neat and orderly—societally acceptable—as inherently painful. Furthermore, the ringer would flatten her hand, equating becoming tidy with being violently reshaped. This further illustrates the unnaturalness of the suburban femininity Elaine pursues here. She has to completely reform herself in order to improve. Elaine externalizes her emotional pain by peeling the skin off her feet, emphasizing that she’s trying to change her own skin, that there’s something wrong with her natural self that must be improved.

Surveillance also plays an important role in the girls’ improvement game. The girls deploy Carol and Grace to observe Elaine when the entire group cannot, creating an atmosphere in which Elaine is constantly watched and judged. We see the effect of this surveillance in Elaine’s anxiety during Cordelia’s play because she doesn’t know which person on stage is Cordelia and therefore doesn’t know who’s watching her. Thus, Elaine must self-moderate every moment because any wrong move could lead to beratement. This fear offers another explanation for her skin picking, as the pain in her feet reminds her to pay attention with every step. The adult Elaine behaves as if this surveillance continues into the present, still acting as if Cordelia could be everywhere. This paranoia may also explain her assumption that Andrea spent the interview judging Elaine’s appearance instead of listening to her answers. While Andrea reports on arts and culture for a newspaper, Elaine views her as playing a similar role to Carol and Grace because all three of them report on or relay Elaine’s status to the outside world. 

Throughout these chapters, Elaine firms up her understanding of the world as dividing into wild and tame, with men more associated with wild and women with tame. She explicitly makes this connection in the aftermath of the bean joke, aligning men, farts, and zoology in opposition to women, manners, and materialism. Cordelia confuses Elaine because she cannot figure out if Cordelia is a misfit like Elaine or a proper part of suburbia like Carol and Grace. Part of Elaine’s confusion is the result of how Cordelia weaponizes suburban social mores against Elaine, such as during the attack against Brian. Whereas Carol and Grace actively engage in bigotry, Cordelia’s comments are mainly aimed at testing Elaine’s understanding of colloquialisms and taboos. Cordelia’s joke is both homophobic and intended to expose Elaine’s naivete because she does not understand the joke and the slang it is based on. According to Elaine’s father, wildness comes with intelligence, which Cordelia demonstrates here. She acts tame to disguise her wild, leaving Elaine alone to bear the social consequences.

Elaine latches onto the figures of Mr. Banerji and Mrs. Finestein because Elaine conflates her feelings of being an outcast with the experience of being a minority. Mr. Banerji’s bewilderment at Thanksgiving dinner echoes Elaine’s own upon moving to Toronto, and she identifies with his classification as someone “exotic,” as Carol once referred to Elaine’s family. Mr. Banerji’s bewilderment makes Elaine feel less alone in finding Toronto confusing and alien. Unlike Mrs. Smeath, who participates in the “improvement” of Elaine through conversion, Mrs. Finestein, a Jewish woman, accepts Elaine just as she is and trusts Elaine to care for her son. Importantly, the way that Carol, Cordelia, and Grace mock Elaine differs from how they mock Brian. Their bullying of Elaine centers on the idea that she can be made normal, whereas they speak of Brian as disposable. The girls make antisemitic comments to bother Elaine, not to bother Brian, who is too young to understand them, which treats Brian as a tool or object instead of a person. This scene dramatizes why Elaine emphasizes in Chapter 22 that her friends don’t hate her—hate would involve dehumanization.