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Valerian is in great pain and sits in his greenhouse thinking
about the time he found Michael hiding under the sink. He used to
believe that Margaret had a drinking problem, and he is very upset
now to realize that he was wrong and that her long history of erratic
behavior resulted from guilt about abusing Michael, not from alcoholism. After
the Christmas dinner, Margaret tried to explain her behavior to
Valerian, but she sickened him when she told him that she abused Michael
because it felt delicious. Valerian wanted to hurt her during her
explanation but could not.
At two in the morning on Christmas night, Sydney comes
into the dining room to see Valerian. Sydney and Ondine lack financial
security, and their financial future depends on Valerian. Sydney
asks Valerian if he plans to fire them, and Valerian says he does
not know because all he can think about is the image of Michael
under the sink. Valerian tries to achieve an emotional release by
crying and wants to cry tears of blood, but he cannot cry. Finally,
around dawn, he goes to bed.
The morning after Christmas, Margaret wakes up very early
and feels relieved that her secret was revealed. She washes her
hair very vigorously and feels hopeful about the future, but the
rest of the people at L’Arbe de la Croix are full of sorrow or anxiety.
Sydney and Ondine remain worried about being fired, and Valerian
is still in a state of shock. Margaret insists on trying to tell
Valerian more details of her abuse of Michael, and she insists that
she had not really hurt him, still trying to explain her actions.
A few nights after Christmas, Margaret announces to Valerian that
she has called Michael and told him to uninvite B. J. Bridges for New
Year’s. Valerian is horrified and incredulous that she has had the
nerve to contact Michael, but she insists that Michael is not damaged.
Valerian notices that she actually looks prettier and also stronger.
He asks her why Michael did not confide in him, and she speculates
that he may have been ashamed. Now Valerian finally begins to cry
because he cannot understand why Michael still loves her. She begs
Valerian to hit her, but he will not. He tells her that perhaps
he will hit her tomorrow, but when the next day comes she asks him
again and he again says tomorrow. Frustrated, Margaret cannot think
of a way to lift either of their moods.
New Year’s Day arrives and Margaret asks Ondine why she
kept Michael’s abuse quiet. Margaret thinks Ondine wanted to feel
superior to her. Ondine admits she kept it quiet was because she
was afraid Valerian would fire her, and maybe Sydney, too. Margaret says
Ondine should have stopped her and mentions that she was only nineteen,
while Ondine was thirty or thirty-five. Ondine corrects her and
says that she was only twenty-three. After Margaret suggests that
maybe they can be friends now, Ondine smiles but is not receptive.
After New Year’s, Valerian retreats to his greenhouse and spends
most of his time there, letting the plants go wild. In his guilty
haze, he has lost any sense of the value of order there. A dead plant
is as good as a live one. Giving up, he lets the ants invade.
The new fast-paced, manic life of Jadine and Son in the
city contrasts with the other characters’ lives on the island. On
Isle des Chevaliers, time moves extremely slowly, and pages pass
before a single day does. The sense of physical confinement is also
powerful. Valerian sits still as a stone contemplating his failed
life first at the dinner table and then in the greenhouse, where
the air is described as being filled with pain. Because Valerian
did not control what happened to Michael so many years ago, he does
not try to gain control of anything else in his life, which is why
he lets the ants invade the greenhouse. Margaret tries to slip reassuring
words to him as they pass each other on the stairs, which implies
that in this home, contact is inevitable, no matter how he might
try to avoid it. Even when Margaret tells him that she phoned Michael
about uninviting B. J. Bridges, Valerian does not scold Margaret
as harshly as he could. Valerian knows that no matter how hard he
tries to understand what went wrong with Michael, he knows Margaret
destroyed their relationship with Michael
As Jadine and Son retreat further and further into an
almost childlike state in the city, those on the island find themselves
suddenly in a state of terrible maturity. With knowledge comes the
loss of innocence, just as in the biblical story of Adam and Eve
in the Garden of Eden. That Valerian’s downfall also came about
through seeking the truth emphasizes the parallel with the story
and the pain that knowledge brings. Similarly, Margaret parallels
the Eve character because she delights in something she should not—in
this case, the harming of her child. In opposition to the biblical
tale, Valerian retreats into his garden, the greenhouse, rather
than being expelled from it. But the space has been ruined for him
by the knowledge. Like Adam and Eve, he is now aware of what he
did not know before, and he cannot return to the state of innocence.
Valerian’s acceptance of entropy into the greenhouse,
as he ceases to protect against the soldier ants and to carefully
nurture his plants, is a sign of how he has yielded his position
to the unstoppable force of nature. This yielding displays Valerian’s
downfall, but the narrator describes Valerian’s downfall with empathy.
Valerian could easily have been written as a caricature: a foolish
old man who neglects his son and cannot see the horrors committed
in his own house. Instead the narrator presents his decline as something
beautiful and noble, even tragic. In comparison, the narrator never
turns on Margaret by denouncing her or making her look cruel. Margaret’s
point of view is faithfully represented throughout the chapter, and
the sense of renewal that she gains through her confession is presented
with deep empathy and psychological accuracy. The chapter portrays
each character as acting from a specific history and set of reasons.
None of the characters are dismissed out of hand or considered lost.
The empathy Margaret, Sydney, and Ondine feel for Valerian emphasizes
the internal conflicts within each character. When Margaret goes
into the kitchen to apologize to Ondine, she feels bad about abusing
Michael but is convinced he has not been affected by it. However,
Ondine’s refusal to absolve Margaret is completely understandable
and utterly revealing. Her unwillingness to tell Margaret’s secret
about the abuse displays her loyalty toward her family because she
does not think Sydney could bear being separated from her if Valerian
only fired her. Margaret’s theory of why Ondine never told anyone
about the abuse and Ondine’s real reason displays a disconnection
between the two characters. For Margaret, a self-involved and pampered
woman filled with insecurity, Ondine’s silence was naturally about
her. But Ondine’s silence came from a much simpler desire to keep
her job. The reasons for their actions are intimately tied to their
specific experiences and histories. The narrator makes both of those
perspectives strong and believable without attempting to reconcile
Margaret and Ondine.