Summary: Chapter 31

Miss Stuart often has the students do art projects, and when the boys draw crude drawings, she admonishes them that they’re too smart to make such pictures. When Miss Stuart asks the students to draw what they do after school, Elaine panics. She begins to draw her bedroom, but then covers the picture in black. She expects a reprimand, but instead Miss Stuart puts a hand on her shoulder. 

On Valentine’s Day, Elaine gets more cards from boys than Carol, but she is too afraid to tell her friends. She believes boys are secretly her allies. 

Carol grows breasts before the other girls and won’t stop talking about them. She steals one of her mother’s old lipsticks but gets in trouble when her mother catches her wearing it. She proudly shows off the marks from the whipping her father gave her. 

Elaine wakes up one morning to find that her mother has gone to the hospital. Stephen informs Elaine that their mother had a baby that came out too soon, but Elaine doesn’t understand how this is possible. 

Elaine dreams that Mrs. Finestein and Mr. Banerji are her real parents. She dreams that her mother had twins, but only one appears, a strange gray baby. In another dream, her house has burned down. In yet another, her parents sink helplessly into the earth.

Summary: Chapter 32

One Saturday, Elaine’s father brings her, Stephen, and Stephen’s friend to a public exposition at the zoology building. In one room, a loudspeaker plays the sound of a dead turtle’s still-beating heart. Elaine gets trapped in the crowd and faints. She awakens outside and realizes that she can use fainting in order to lose time. 

Elaine waits against the wall of the school building without moving because of a new game Cordelia has invented. Elaine stares up at the sky until she makes herself faint. Cordelia and the others treat Elaine kindly on the way home from school. After this, Elaine faints on command to avoid Cordelia’s torments until Cordelia catches on. 

Summary: Chapter 33

Back in the present, Elaine eats pizza on the way back to Jon’s studio. She considers that Ben makes her eat healthy food at regular times, whereas she eats junk food when left to her own devices. At the studio, she scans the phone book, but can’t find the names of anyone she once knew in Toronto. 

Summary: Chapter 34

While playing school at Grace’s house after Sunday dinner, Elaine passes by the kitchen on her way to the bathroom. She overhears Mrs. Smeath talking to Grace’s Aunt Mildred about Elaine. Aunt Mildred complains that Elaine is a hopeless heathen. Mrs. Smeath agrees that Elaine deserves the way the other girls treat her. When the two women catch Elaine standing there, Mrs. Smeath admonishes Aunt Mildred about being overheard. 

After that, Elaine refuses to pray to God anymore. She won’t say the Lord’s Prayer because she doesn’t want to forgive Mrs. Smeath. On the way home from school, Elaine finds a piece of paper from the local Catholic school with a picture of the Virgin Mary on it. She resolves to pray to the Virgin Mary.

Summary: Chapter 35

It’s March, and the girls run through the snow and make snow angels. Cordelia slips on the hill by the ravine and rolls down. At first the girls laugh because they think she rolled down intentionally, and Cordelia fumes at Elaine for laughing. Cordelia grabs Elaine’s hat, tosses it into the ravine, and orders Elaine to retrieve it, promising forgiveness if she does. She tells Elaine to count to one hundred after she gets the hat before coming back to the bridge. When Elaine goes to get her hat, the ice on the river breaks, and icy water fills her boots. The cold on shore hurts even more, and Elaine can’t climb back up the ravine. She lies on the ground, helpless, until she sees a figure standing before her. It appears to be a woman in a long skirt with a dark hood and her heart pinned to her chest. The woman whispers that Elaine can go home. 

Analysis: Chapters 31–35

Elaine receiving the most Valentine’s Day cards hints at the shifting power dynamics to come when Elaine reaches puberty. In Elaine’s extremely binary understanding of the world, she has an affinity for the world of boys because of her love of science and nature. Elaine also has reason to believe that the masculine world recognizes this affinity in her, as when Mr. Smeath insists that Elaine appreciated the fart joke. However, we recognize Elaine’s interpretation of why she received valentines as a naïve misinterpretation. Although the boys in her class probably don’t understand why they like Elaine, the valentines suggest some form of puppy love and early attraction. The gender-segregated world of adolescence means that Elaine’s ability to align herself to the world of girls has controlled her happiness. However, as demonstrated by Carol’s attempts to look womanly after the growth of her breasts, the girls will soon rely more on the opinions of boys than the opinions of other girls. Atwood demonstrates this power shift with how Carol’s parents punish her for wearing the lipstick. While Carol’s mother berates her, her father holds the ultimate authority when he whips her.

Mrs. Smeath’s conversation with Aunt Mildred solidifies her role as an enemy in Elaine’s imagination because it reveals the role adult women play in Elaine’s torment. Elaine believed her friends’ improvement game existed only between them, meaning that Elaine couldn’t ask for help or tattle. Her mother recognizing Elaine’s pain wasn’t a threat because she doesn’t view her mother as a powerful adult, like Mrs. Smeath is. In this conversation, Mrs. Smeath reveals that not only did she know about the girls’ games, but she sanctions them as methods to improve Elaine. Mrs. Smeath expressed interest in Elaine only as a target of conversion, which implies she views these games as extensions of her work. Worse, Aunt Mildred’s missionary comparison evokes the theme of colonialism and implies that despite all the pain Elaine has gone through to suburbanize herself, it has been for naught. Elaine’s later paintings depict Mrs. Smeath as a stand-in for suburban women because of the way she commends Elaine’s suffering as her due for failing to correctly embodying suburban girlhood.

Elaine’s choice of the Virgin Mary as a savior appears odd at first because Elaine has come to associate women with judgement and cruelty. Upon closer examination, we see that the Virgin Mary represents a spiritual femininity that runs counter to that of the suburbs. Elaine’s understanding of religion comes from Grace and Mrs. Smeath, bound up in the suburban world of judgement, surveillance, and shame. As we have observed, this world disassociates from the physical body, encourages material gain, and enforces a veneer of politeness. In the flier image, Mary looks sad, offering Elaine a glimpse of a femininity that makes space for negative emotion. Mary doesn’t hide her bleeding heart from the world, not allowing people to forget she has a body. Furthermore, as his mother, Mary ties Jesus to the body, unlike Mrs. Smeath’s detached god in a distant heaven. Additionally, while Mrs. Smeath’s “bad heart” keeps her from feeling compassion for Elaine, Mary offers succor despite having a stabbed heart. Elaine pictures Mary saving her from the ravine because Mary represents a way forward for Elaine, a femininity that is neither false like Mrs. Smeath’s or impotent like her mother’s.

The ravine incident echoes across the rest of Elaine’s life because it lays bare the very serious and dangerous nature of the forces at work. First, Cordelia, angry and embarrassed at being the subject of ridicule for falling down, sends Elaine down to the ravine to transfer the ridicule to Elaine. While Cordelia’s fall bruised only her ego, Elaine’s experience nearly kills her, which suggests that Cordelia’s habit of displacing her own bad feelings onto Elaine magnifies their power and virulence and puts Elaine in harm’s way. Another important image that first appears during this incident is Elaine being frozen or stuck and unable to move forward. Cordelia once described the ravine water as being made from the dead, associating it with Elaine’s current state of emotional numbness and suicidal ideations. In this reading, Elaine cannot move forward because her emotional numbness keeps her from fully participating. However, the dead are also associated with the past, and we can also read this moment as explaining why Elaine appears locked in behavioral patterns and assumptions that began in her childhood, why she cites the 1940s, not the 70s, as the influence of her artwork.