A Reliable Wife - Study Guide Part 2 - St. Louis, Winter, 1908, Chapters 15 and 16 Summary & Analysis

Robert Goolrick
This Study Guide consists of approximately 44 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of A Reliable Wife.
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Part 2 - St. Louis, Winter, 1908, Chapters 15 and 16 Summary

Chapter 15: In the first part of this chapter, narration describes how Catherine and Alice struggled to survive after their mother died giving birth to Alice and their father eventually drank himself into a grieving death - Catherine was fourteen, Alice was seven. Alice was eventually put into a poorhouse, where she started school and passed on what she learned there to Catherine. Catherine quickly learned to sell her body to men, saving what money she could. Eventually they moved to Philadelphia where the cycle repeated itself, but with some additions - Catherine started going to the library and teaching herself, and also found a man to take care of her regularly, a man whom she one day finds in bed with twelve year old Alice. She and Alice then fled to New York, and the cycle again repeats itself, Alice eventually finding a man of her own. The women lose track of each other for a few years, finding each other by accident on Catherine's earlier visit to St. Louis. Their conversation, however, ended with Alice slapping Catherine and running away. When narration returns to the present, Catherine searches the slummy Wild Cat Chute and eventually finds her sister, but is surprised to have her offer to take her someplace nicer rejected. Alice says she never liked Catherine, and Catherine explains that she has always loved Alice, and has always been desperate to make life better for her. The initially angry conversation calms down, and Alice confesses that in her quiet moments, she realizes that Catherine did her best, thanks her and then tells her to go. As Alice falls asleep, Catherine sees something like an angel float down to Alice and believes that it has come to take her away but then the angel flies away, its arms empty. At that moment, Catherine realizes she can't kill Ralph Truitt. "She knew she couldn't bring harm to one living soul. Not any more." Catherine leaves Alice some money and her fur coat, knowing that by morning both would be gone.

Chapter 16: After leaving Alice and realizing that her sister is lost to her forever, Catherine stays crying in bed for two days. She attempts going to church, but the priest's well-meaning forgiveness means nothing to her. She then writes to Truitt, saying she's planning on coming home but not clearly stating whether Antonio is coming with her. On the day he sends his train for her, she visits Antonio one last time and begs him to release her from their arrangement to kill Truitt. He angrily insists that he won't, saying the only use she is to him is as a means to kill his father and adding that all he wants from Truitt is to watch him die. When she continues to refuse, he threatens to tell Truitt what they've been doing and then says it might be possible for them to love each other again. After he leaves, saying he doesn't want to hear from her again until Truitt is dead, she considers killing herself but then realizes the only thing she could do is what she's always done, which is to go on, and survive.

Part 2 - St. Louis, Winter, 1908, Chapters 15 and 16 Analysis

The narrative of Catherine and Alice's past life is, in its own way, as stark, as dark, and as soul-destroying as those of Truitt's and Antonio's pasts. Here again, the reader can see that all three of the main characters have a lot in common, all of which seems rooted in a common experience of suffering that, in turn, provides the foundation for an increasingly desperate desire for some kind of connection, of intimacy.

Meanwhile, the appearance of the angel can, at first glance, to be a somewhat strange interjection of magic realism into a circumstance mostly portrayed in relatively realistic terms, albeit within the context of a fairly romanticized narrative. On the other hand, in a similar fashion to how the Italian house can be seen as a metaphoric representation of passion and to how Catherine's clothing choices can be seen as metaphoric externalizations of her inner intentions, the appearance of the angel can be seen as a poetic representation of Catherine's hope. In other words, with the appearance of the angel, the author is again portraying Catherine's inner experience through the medium of an outward image, an experience that also manifests in her sudden change of heart about killing Truitt. This, in its turn, clearly marks a transformation in her character, one that has been building for quite some time. Her decision, as a result of this change of heart, to tell Antonio of the change sets in motion the events of the final section, laying the foundations for the inevitable three way conversation between the man with the money, the woman with the poison, and the man with enough anger to destroy them all.

One final point in relation to Alice is the repetition of the "such things happened" motif at the end of Chapter 15. Here, the phrase's apparent evocation of the novel's thematic interest in human unpredictability has the air of a shrug about it, almost a "what can you do" kind of helplessness. The idea here, as it sometimes is in other places where the motif manifests, is that in spite of one's best efforts, events and situations turn out differently from what is desired, or sought.

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