A Reliable Wife - Study Guide Part 3 - Wisconsin, Winter into Spring, 1908 - Chapters 17 and 18 Summary & Analysis

Robert Goolrick
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Part 3 - Wisconsin, Winter into Spring, 1908 - Chapters 17 and 18 Summary

Chapter 17: Narration describes one of Truitt's bedtime rituals, drinking water left for him by Mrs. Larsen from a carved Italian glass taken from the Italian house, and how he sees Mrs. Larsen's actions in filling it as an act of tenderness of the sort he rarely, if ever, experienced anywhere else (particularly from his mother). Narration then describes his feelings at seeing Catherine step down from the train, alone, on her return from St. Louis and his feelings of despair when she tells him that Antonio rejects both the idea that he is Truitt's son and the invitation to come home. During a quiet dinner, Truitt's despair deepens. He suggests that he and Catherine move into the Italian house and wait for Antonio, and that he and Catherine have a child. Catherine agrees to both. Afterwards, they go up to bed, and for the first time Catherine waits for Truitt nude in his bed. Truitt makes love to her, intensely, passionately, and with the same sort of obliteration of feeling that Antonio experienced earlier not because he (Truitt) is beautiful, but because the intensity of sexual release obliterates all other feelings. Afterwards, he thanks Catherine for giving herself to him, and when she turns away, he realizes he's said the wrong thing, and his despair returns. Feeling his age and foolishness, he gets out of bed and drinks from his glass of water, noticing immediately that it tastes odd. Remembering his decadent days in Italy, he realizes he's being poisoned and also realizes he doesn't care.

Chapter 18: As the days and weeks pass, as Truitt continues to consciously take the poison appearing everywhere in his food, water, and clothes, he experiences a momentary surge in virility, a side effect of mild arsenic poisoning that he remembers from his days in Italy. He realizes, however, that the feeling won't last long and soon the poison will take its intended effect. Meanwhile, he and Catherine move into the Italian house, deeding the other house to Mr. and Mrs. Larsen. The time Truitt and Catherine spend together becomes more and more tender, more and more intimate - but the whole time, Truitt is aware of what's happening to him, his despair over Antonio deepening. The author describes several incidents in the area in which people lose their minds and behave destructively each description ending with a phrase similar to "such things happened." Truitt has some sense of why "such things happened. Also, Catherine's daily search for her lost jewels ends when Larsen finds them and brings them to her. At that point, as she recalls what the jewels had been intended for (i.e. to pay for a possible escape), Catherine realizes that in spite of her murderous intent, she doesn't really want to leave. One night during this time, Truitt weeps uncontrollably. After Catherine has changed their bedsheets, he tells her he knows what she's doing, and that he forgives her. In spite of her protestations she doesn't know what he's talking about, and telling him (for the first time) that she loves him, he insists, eventually falling asleep. The author describes Catherine's deep reluctance to keep doing what she's doing, as she has truly started to love her husband, but her continuing because of the lingering threat of Antonio's exposing her. One last strange incident - Larsen, believing an unhealed burn was the mark of sin, cut off his hand and was put into hospital paid for by Truitt. The chapter concludes with a reference to Catherine, deliberately setting out to poison the husband who loved her and whom she loved.

Part 3 - Wisconsin, Winter into Spring, 1908 - Chapters 17 and 18 Analysis

There are several important points to note about this section. The first is the narrative's clear link between Truitt's glass, the Italian house, and poison, an important link given that, as previously discussed, the Italian house is a metaphoric representation of passion. In other words, the image of Truitt drinking poison from a glass from the Italian house suggests that he is, in fact, drinking poison because of passion - a combination of his own, Catherine's, and Antonio's. This link, between poison and passion, is reinforced by the reference to Truitt recognizing the taste of poison as the result of his time in Florence, during which time (as the narrative makes clear in Chapter 18) arsenic was used as a temporary aphrodisiac, or booster of sexual desire/energy. This time, however, he knows the poison is intended to be fatal, rather than rejuvenating, perhaps as much representative of his corrupt passion for bringing home his son, as his sexual passions. The link is reinforced even further by Truitt's and Catherine's move into the Italian house. They are literally living in passion, and Truitt is dying as the result of passion.

A third point to note is another clear link, this one between Truitt's affection for Mrs. Larson and the lack of affection he received from his mother. Mrs. Larsen is clearly the mother figure he never had, and in some ways is the same for Catherine, her mother having died when she was very young. A fourth point is the reappearance of a motif that has been referred to throughout the narrative but manifests in much more vivid terms here. This is the commentary on the increasingly deranged actions of the townspeople, including Larsen. These actions, the narrative suggests, are the result of isolation - not just the physical isolation of being in such a cold, essentially empty, very lonely part of the world, but also the emotional and spiritual isolation caused both by that physical environment and emotion emptiness in a relationship. The juxtaposition of local madness with the madness of living in the Italian house and knowingly ingesting poison being given by the beloved is very telling indeed.

Then there is Truitt's revelation to Catherine that he knows what she's doing, and the subsequent actions by both that enable her to keep doing so. There is the sense here that Truitt really is giving into the self-destructive tendencies his mother once told him, through the use of the pin (Chapter 5), would corrupt him or at least, he is giving in to the belief in those tendencies. Only later, after Catherine stops poisoning him, does he realize and accept that perhaps both he and his mother were/are wrong. Yet another point is Catherine's continued lying since she has an opportunity to confess, to stop her murderous actions, to be forgiven, and to move on from the traumas of both her recent and her distant past. She, however, is too caught up in her OWN self-destructive tendencies, her own self-hatred, to do so. Here again, the narrative draws clear parallels between the experiences and situations of the two main characters. Finally, the section closes with yet another reiteration of the "Such things happened" motif, again a manifestation of the book's thematic interest in how humanity surprises itself.

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