Chapter four

Summary: Part 1

The story jumps back to the late 1960s. Marilyn hopes to return to her studies now that Nathan and Lydia are in school. At a college faculty party, she meets Tom Lawson, a chemistry professor, and she asks to be his research assistant. James doesn’t support her plan, thinking Marilyn is only worried about money. When Marilyn’s mother dies, Marilyn travels to Virginia to clear out her mother’s house. Coming across her mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook, she reflects angrily about her mother’s small life. She promises herself not to end up like her mother. 

At home, James takes seven-year-old Nathan to the YMCA to learn how to do the breaststroke. Nathan reluctantly joins a game of Marco Polo, but when his turn to be “it” arrives, the other children get out of the pool. One girl calls him a racial slur. Jack then deliberately swims toward Nathan and allows himself to get caught. Seeing Jack’s smiling face, Nathan thinks Jack is taunting him. Angry, Nathan departs the pool with his father. James wants to tell his son he understands what it feels like to be teased, but he doesn’t because he hopes his son will be more socially outgoing than he was.

Summary: Part 2

When Marilyn returns home, she follows up on the research assistant position, but Dr. Lawson, thinking she was not serious, has hired someone else. On an impulse, she drives to the hospital, where she talks with Jack’s mother, Dr. Wolff. Marilyn concludes that she too could become a doctor if she didn’t have a husband and children. Taking her mother’s savings, Marilyn secretly enrolls in classes at a community college and rents an apartment in Toledo. She then prepares to leave, cooking meals and taking small mementos from each family member. She writes James a note, then tears it up, and departs without a word to anyone. When James gets home, he finds Lydia and Nathan waiting for him on the front stoop. James calls the police. Lydia considers writing something in her new diary but doesn’t know what to say about her mother’s sudden disappearance.

Analysis: Chapter four

The central tension in the Lees’ marriage stems from their inability to communicate openly and honestly with each other. In this chapter, the narrative flashes back to the past, when Marilyn is 29 years old and feels desperate to be more than just a homemaker and mother. At a Christmas party at the college where James is a professor, Marilyn asks a chemistry professor if she can be his research assistant, but James is insistent that she doesn’t need to take on the position. Instead of listening and understanding when his wife says that she needs a life outside of motherhood and domesticity, James insists on proving that he can provide for his wife and family. When Marilyn cleans out her mother's house after her death, she finds her mother’s cherished Betty Crocker cookbook and reflects angrily and sadly on the fact that her mother’s life revolved around keeping her husband happy. Marilyn is determined never to end up like her mother, and yet, the cookbook represents who Marilyn is in her husband's eyes: someone who keeps house and takes care of the children while the man of the house is at work. This is how he has always known her, and she cannot make him understand what she needs. The rainstorm she stands in is a kind of baptism, clearing her eyes and allowing her to see what might be possible. 

While Marilyn is away, James is forced to confront the reality that he has always wanted to defy: that he can never fully fit into white America. James wants Nath to play with other kids in order to prove to himself that his decision to marry a white woman had the desired result of producing children who could blend in, but the game only serves to humiliate Nath and remind James of a similar incident in his childhood. The impulse to comfort Nath and to share his feelings and history flashes briefly in James, but it is overwhelmed by a kind of disgust at Nath's inability to overcome James' sense of alienation. Nath cannot understand what his father wants from him because James does not express it, so Nath’s takeaway is that his father resents him. What Nath does not know is that his father resents him for the same reason that his father resents himself: he is undeniably different and unable to hide it.

When Marilyn returns home from her mother’s house, she finally realizes what she needs to do in order to be happy, and for the first time, she acts on her desires. In defiance of her mother's ideals, Marilyn refuses to cook for her family anymore. She is determined to finish the college degree that marriage and motherhood deprived her of, so she enrolls in college courses and leaves her family. Her needs and goals, which have been subsumed by the needs of those around her, can finally be realized. She can prove that she is an extraordinary person, not just a woman content to play the roles of a wife and mother. Unfortunately, because Marilyn never articulates her needs to her husband or children, the act of chasing her dreams is interpreted as her abandoning her family, leaving them with grief, confusion, and an ever-deepening silence.