Friend of My Youth: Stories Characters

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Friend of My Youth: Stories Summary & Study Guide Description

Friend of My Youth: Stories Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on Friend of My Youth: Stories by Alice Munro.

The Narratorappears in Friend of My Youth

The narrator of Friend of My Youth is unnamed, but we know that she is the daughter of Flora Grieves' friend, a schoolteacher who came to live on her farm. The narrator's mother is referred to only as "my mother" throughout the story. The narrator has been dreaming about her deceased mother lately, which is what sparks memories of the story she used to tell about Flora. In telling Flora's story, the narrator begins to merge Flora with her mother in her mind. She realizes that just as she knows nothing about Flora, and could easily have got all her feelings and reactions wrong, so she knows very little about her own mother. She is forced to conclude that no-one can ever know another person completely. There will always be surprises and hidden depths.

This epiphany has come to the narrator too late, and she regrets that she could not have tried to know her mother better, instead of assuming that she had her figured out. She looks back on the confidence of youth with the wisdom of middle age and realizes how wrong she was in her self-assuredness. She imagined that she was being radical and different in her values and beliefs, but in fact she was just following the trends of the time. Now she realizes that these trends always change, and that today's radical youth will be tomorrow's conservative parents. Now that she understands this she can look back at her mother with a less critical eye and try to understand her. In trying to understand her, however, she realizes that she never really can.

Floraappears in Friend of My Youth

The image the reader gets of Flora Grieves is tainted first by the narrator's mother's bias, then by the narrator's own views. As such, the reader is very far removed from Flora's feelings, and we cannot get a very accurate sense of who she was. Instead, we must assess her from the story that others tell about her.

Flora is a very conservative, puritanical woman who does not embrace change lightly or easily. She will not accept modern conveniences, because her religion (Cameroonian Christianity) forbids them. She sticks to the values and rules with which she was raised, obeying her father and church without question. Due to this, we might expect her to be a very hard, cold and boring woman, but in actual fact she is a very forgiving and pleasant woman. The narrator's mother finds her to be a true friend, and is devoted to her. She sings her praises, and is outraged with the way life and other people treat her. In the narrator's mother's story, Flora comes across as a saint who struggles on through a number of hardships, who never casts anyone out of her house despite two deep betrayals.

The narrator gives an alternative view, saying that when she was younger she thought of Flora as an attention-seeking prude. She thought that she secretly loved her sufferings, since they allowed her to appear as a gracious martyr. The narrator particularly hated Flora for her lack of passion and denial of sex, seeing her as a kind of anti-woman in this regard. Flora's kind of stoicism and abstinence angered a teenage girl anxious to break free of her own mother's boundaries.

The narrator does not still seem to hold on to this assessment of Flora. Instead she concludes that it is impossible to say who Flora really was or what she felt. Flora's answer to the narrator's mother's pitying letter shows a sense of pride and dignity, and her move to town shows that she could embrace modernity after all. Flora, it seems, was capable of surprising everyone, and it is this that causes the narrator to conclude that her mother may have had her own surprises.

Brendaappears in Five Points

Brenda is a woman who feels trapped and stifled in her marriage. She feels the need for an affair, not simply for the physical pleasure, but for the emotional release it brings. When Brenda is with Neil she feels a sense of freedom she does not get from her marriage. With Cornelius she takes the role of wife and mother, and cannot express herself beyond this. When Cornelius makes love to her he feels heavy, as they are both weighed down by all the responsibilities and burdens that come with married life. In contrast Neil seems light and wild. He is not tied down by responsibilities, and Brenda owes him nothing. They are free simply to enjoy each other's company, and Brenda can feel like she has something beyond her married life. The similarity between the men's names emphasizes how each man plays a different role in Brenda's life. Cornelius is the older man, the one to whom she owes things and to whom she is tied. Neil is the younger version, with a lighter name, freer attitude and sense of fun. With one she shares a life, family and home. With the other she shares a freedom and a part of herself that is lost in her marriage.

Brenda feels terrible guilt and shame for her affair. She finds the wait and the traveling to meet Neil tortuous because she is so afraid of discovery. She dreads the gossip and reactions of the townsfolk, and fears how her affair might affect her family. However, with Neil she shows a side that is more adventurous, even reckless. She laughs about how daring she is, and holds these memories as precious secrets. They are proof that the Brenda who is married to Cornelius is not the only Brenda that exists.

When Brenda feels the relationship between herself and Neil becoming serious, she dreads what this change will mean. She feels a tight kind of happiness, pleased that their relationship is deepening and enjoying the slightly painful feeling of love blossoming. At the same time, however, she misses the sense of freedom and care-free attitude that they once had. She knows that things can never be the same again, and that soon new responsibilities will start to creep into her life. Neil is no longer simply a fun diversion, but has become another man to whom she is deeply and irrevocably attached. As such, he loses a little of his sheen for her, and seems somehow heavier and tired. Brenda sees the change in their relationship before Neil does and knows that things will only get more difficult from this point forward.

Mariaappears in Five Points

Like Brenda, Maria needs the illicit sex that she is getting, not simply for the physical feeling, but for the emotional release and freedom it brings. Like Brenda she feels trapped by what others need her to be, and tied down by responsibilities. She has the shop forced on her, something at which she is good but by which she does not necessarily want to be defined. Maria is known by everyone as a quiet responsible girl, but there is more to her beneath the surface. She longs for a sense of freedom, to escape her responsibilities, to be wild and rash and different. She seeks sex for the thrill it brings, and for the sense of being able to escape herself and be a different person for a while. It is likely that she also feels a need for the attention and physical closeness which she cannot otherwise get.

Like Brenda, Maria fears discovery. She knows that if she is found out she will lose everything, and her anxieties grow with each day as the boys demand more and more money. When her secret finally does come out, her whole family is ruined and her mother turns against her. She stands as a warning to Brenda, and provides a glimpse of the ruin that could also be in Brenda's future if she continues her affair.

Almedaappears in Meneseteung

Almeda is a 19th century middle-aged woman and poet living alone in a small town. She is looked down on a little by the townsfolk for her interest in books and poetry, though this is deemed more acceptable in middle-age than it had been in her youth. It seems to be the general opinion of the town that she should get married, and even the doctor recommends this as a cure for her anxieties. Almeda accepts this view, anxious to conform to the values of the town. She sets her eye on the bachelor living next door, Jarvis Poulter. She fantasizes about marrying him, and what married life might be like. Although her house backs onto a bad street, she tries to ignore the violent things that happen on it, taking the same attitude as the rest of the respectable members of the community. In her poetry she expresses a similar view, ignoring anything unpleasant and messy to express the beauty and tranquility around her instead.

This all changes when a violent crime is committed right outside her house and a woman is beaten and left in her back yard. She feels terrible guilt for leaving the woman and not seeking help, and the next morning runs to Jarvis. Jarvis moves the woman along, dismissing her as a poor drunk with whom he and other respectable folk should have nothing to do. He does not care what may have happened to her, finding such things distasteful. Almeda cannot do the same. She is horrified by his attitude, and her feelings of repressed fear and guilt, as well as her anxieties, are only heightened. When he leaves, she rushes indoors and is overwhelmed by the pain and suffering she has seen, which drives her into a kind of hysteria. She has an epiphany, realizing that darkness is a part of human life as well as a part of nature, and that pain and suffering cannot be simply ignored. The distasteful aspects of life must be included in her poetry as well as the beautiful. She can finally cope with her fear and anxiety when she compares the darkness in the town to the violence of nature. This event completely changes her attitude to the town and its values. We do not know if she continues to think of Jarvis as a potential husband, but her death notice in the local paper makes it clear that she never married. It seems likely that other things now occupied her mind, and that Jarvis lost his appeal the night he chose to ignore the beaten woman's pain.

Despite this insight into her life, Almeda is as mysterious to the reader as Flora in Friend of My Youth. The narrator admits to not knowing anything about her, and so her feelings and motivations might not be accurately portrayed.

Hazelappears in Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass

Hazel is a middle-aged woman who has traveled to Scotland in order to find out more about her deceased husband and the time he spent there. She wants to get a feeling of connecting with him again, but instead finds herself thrown into the middle of strangers' lives and problems. She is an impartial observer, and so is in the same position as the reader, able to see both sides of the story and make her own judgments. She is sharp and observant, quickly picking up on Antoinette's, Dudley's and Judy's feelings, and guessing at the secret they are sharing. At first she is inclined to think badly of Antoinette and Dudley and feel sorry for Judy, but after further thought she begins to view the situation differently. She shows compassion for both women involved, and a unique form of understanding. She sees Dudley providing each woman with her own form of happiness. He gives them both something to strive after, something to give their lives purpose and meaning. She relates this to her own life, remembering how she once suffered a nervous breakdown, and how having a goal to pursue helped her get out of it. In fact, this is exactly what she is doing right now, striving to find out more about her husband so that she feels she has some kind of purpose and connection. Her breakdown came because she felt isolated and tied down in the role of Jack's wife, with nothing for which to strive and no goal to pursue. In her view, the faint hope that they might win Dudley prevents a similar thing from happening to Antoinette and Judy. It prevents despair.

Antoinetteappears in Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass

Antoinette loves Dudley but knows that he has a child with Judy. She attempts to prevent him from seeing Judy and his child whenever she can, and being faced directly with the situation makes her feel physically ill. The reader is given the impression that she would rather ignore Judy and try to forget that part of Dudley's life. The fact that she prevents him from seeing Judy suggests that she knows there is still something between Dudley and Judy, and that she can never be the sole object of his attention and love. She does not want to have to deal with this fact. However, Antoinette is not painted as the jealous and cruel lover who will not let her man see his child. Hazel points out that the situation is just as unfair to Antoinette. Why should she be denied the man she loves simply because of this earlier attachment? Hazel also observes that in keeping Dudley from Judy, Antoinette is also sparing him pain. She sees that Antoinette is a calmer and more forgiving woman than Judy, who will turn her head from an occasional visit. Judy, on the other hand, is passionate and fiery and would cause Dudley terrible guilt and suffering. Antoinette's calmer acceptance of the situation shows how deep her feelings for Dudley must be, since she is shown to be quite a proud woman, taking great care with her appearance. She also seems friendly and compassionate with Hazel.

Murrayappears in Oranges and Apples

Murray is a man who fears change, but is also terrified of being left behind. This has happened to him once before, and he is determined not to be humiliated again. When modern change began to creep into the small town where he lives, he renovated the store that he had inherited from his father. However, he went too far and the store became a joke, something that was trying too hard to be fresh and fashionable. He became the laughing stock of the town and was forced to sell the store. Now he fears the same rejection and humiliation from his family. He becomes convinced that his wife is cheating on him, seeing Victor as a fresh, new and interesting potential lover for his wife, and seeing himself as the rejected older model. His paranoia grows daily as he imagines their love affair, and reads double meanings into everything that they do or say. He feels betrayed, despite having no real evidence that his wife is cheating on him, only his constant fears. He actually goes so far as to set up a situation in which he expects her to cheat, almost happily pushing the affair towards a resolution. He wants the end to come so that he can stop looking and feeling like a fool, but at the same time he imagines a future in which more humiliation is heaped on him. He sees himself visiting Victor and Barbara and being forced to make small talk, rather than hating and avoiding them. It seems that he cannot imagine anything but pain and ridicule in his life.

When Barbara does not cheat he cannot understand it, and seems to hold suspicions long afterward. At the end of the story, he expresses disappointment, perhaps because he still believes there had been an affair, or perhaps because a part of him wanted there to be a break-up, and wanted a legitimate reason that would leave him as the injured party. Perhaps he wanted there to be a reason for his wife's seeming lack of passion, and found it easier to imagine betrayal than that their relationship was simply that dull. In the end the reader never finds out the truth, and we will never know if Murray was simply very paranoid, or very perceptive.

Barbaraappears in Oranges and Apples

Barbara is Murray's wife and potentially Victor's lover, though the reader never learns whether she cheated on her husband or not. She is quite a cold woman with whom it is not easy to get along. She does not make friends easily, and takes little interest in anything except reading. She has very little passion for anything in life. She likes to read but sees no point in college, has no desire to get a job, and seems to be content living a fairly monotonous life. Murray reveals that she also has little passion for him during sex, and that he hates it when she wears seductive clothes and it seems like a lie. Murray worships Barbara, but at the same time does not really seem to understand her. It is possible that Barbara finds solace in Victor, and a level of understanding that she does not get in her marriage. It is possible that she finds all her excitement and passion with him. However, it is just as likely that she is simply not interested in that kind of excitement, and that her lack of passion for Murray is a character trait rather than an indication that she does not love him. Barbara is as suspicious and critical of Victor as she is of everyone else in the world, and she seems quite a stand-offish person who believes herself better than everyone else. Whether this is simply an act to hide her feelings for Victor, or the plain reality, is up to the reader to decide.

Victorappears in Oranges and Apples

Victor is a Polish man who came to Canada with his English wife after the war. He claims that he fought in the war, was shot down in France and escaped, and that he traveled to Turkey to help escaping refugees. Barbara claims not to believe these stories, but the reader is given no real indication of whether he is lying or not. Victor is tall and handsome and draws a lot of attention from the townsfolk. He seems quite a glamorous person compared to the rest of the town, and is intriguing because he is so different. He quickly makes friends with Murray, and is shown as a generous, gentle man who has a sense of humor. His relationship with his wife is not good, and deteriorates throughout the story until he convinces himself that she is trying to poison him. This is an odd conclusion, and in this regard he comes across as just as paranoid as Murray. Perhaps the isolated yet claustrophobic feeling of the small town breeds such paranoia and fears.

Victor certainly seems to be attracted to Barbara as he watches her with binoculars while she is sunbathing. Murray is convinced that Barbara is aware of this and putting on a show for him, but if she is not then Victor's voyeurism is disturbing. Victor also seems to enjoy being in her company and likes to visit whenever he can, though it is just as likely that it is Murray he is coming to see. When Barbara takes blankets over to Victor's flat, nothing happens between them. This could be because Victor does not want to get involved with a married woman, or because he feels guilty about betraying his friend Murray. Alternatively, Barbara may have rejected his advances, or there may not have even been any advances from either of them. The reader is not given enough information about Victor to form a solid opinion of him, and we never see anything from his point of view. He is a very ambiguous villain, and perhaps not even a villain at all.

Karinappears in Pictures of the Ice

Karin is a woman whose life has been torn apart by a bad relationship with an abusive man. Her ex-husband Brent treated her badly, did stupid things when drunk, and eventually cast her out unfairly after a religious conversion. It is also possible that he is responsible for the loss of their child, though Karin is adamant that the baby would have died anyway. She repeats this to herself several times, as if trying to convince herself that it was not her fault and that she could have done nothing to save him. This indicates the terrible guilt with which she lives every day. She tries to repress it, but a simple snow-storm is enough to drag up painful memories. She also hates Brent with a passion that she does not show in any other aspect of her life. Her life is filled with bitterness, and she has no purpose other than to hate Brent. She feels isolated from the rest of the townsfolk and completely let down by everyone.

Her suffering is ignored by everyone but Austin, who helps her by giving her friendships, as well as a sense of purpose beyond hating Brent. First he gets her to look after his dying wife, then he asks for her help in getting ready to leave. Karin learns to appreciate another person again, and through Austin she decides to get her life back on track and leave the town.

Austinappears in Pictures of the Ice

Austin is the perfect example of Christian virtue. He is the minister of the small town in which he lives, and embraces his values in every aspect of life. He believes in preaching by example, taking a calmer and quieter approach to his religious duties than the new minister that Brent and the other townsfolk want. Austin treats every person with kindness, helping Brent despite what he did to him, helping Lazarus House even though it was taken from him, and finding ways to help Karin despite his own problems and his dying wife. He refuses to think badly of people, despite the rejection that the townsfolk show him. When contrasted with Brent's fervor, which is likened to his alcohol addiction, and the over-zealous method of preaching that the townsfolk are willing to treat Austin so cruelly to get, Austin's brand of religion seems truer to the real message of Christianity.

Like Karin, Austin is an isolated figure who has been rejected and ignored by the rest of the town. His life has crumbled down and he has lost everything that had been important to him. However, he refuses to lose his pride and dignity. He makes up the story about Hawaii in order to leave with his dignity intact, and refuses any help or worry from his children. He wants to fool the world into thinking that he cannot be brought down so easily. Karin sympathizes with this, and does not destroy his lies. However, in the end Austin is found dead in a lake. Despite his attempt to keep his cheerfulness and dignity, he still died cold and alone. Was this an accident or suicide? The audience will never know for sure.

Averillappears in Goodness and Mercy

Averill is a young woman weighed down by her responsibilities to her dying mother. She must nurse her and stay with her in her sickness, and a part of her guiltily longs to be free. She is also used to her mother claiming all the attention, and seems fairly happy to blend into the background. She enjoys being on her own, but still longs for something that will make her as special as her mother, and for one person at least to share a connection with her. She is used to taking the backseat to her mother's story, talent and fame, and now longs for her own romantic story to come true. She creates a fantasy in which the captain comes to her after her mother dies and makes love to her. She sees him as a kindred soul, wandering the deck alone at night. She sees him as a man who also rejects the ordinary life of the day, and the petty problems of the people onboard, and longs for something more like her. When the captain tells his story she is overwhelmed by the possibility that he somehow understands her dream, and really does share something with her. For just one night her romantic dream comes true. However, her real life does not go according to her story. Her mother dies in Britain and she returns to Canada. She marries and divorces, becomes pregnant and marries again, and never sees the captain again. Whether she ever shared anything with the captain or whether it was all in her head is left deliberately ambiguous.

Joanappears in Oh, What Avails

Joan's life has been deeply affected by her mother. In childhood she was taught that she was special, and to expect great things in life. She was made to feel that she was better than everyone else, and enjoyed mocking and judging other people with her mother. She lived in a house separated and barricaded from the rest of the town, and she often looked out at the world through the red stained glass next to the door. This colored her view of the world in more ways than one, making everything seem sinister, dull or depressing. In later life, she is still colored by this view. She looks at the rest of the world as rubble, and does not feel any connection to it or to anyone else. She is disapproving of most other people, and still feels that she is in some way special. She is dissatisfied with a normal life and a normal husband and home. She wants more passion and excitement, feeling that she has not yet found that special relationship that will make her feel excited and important. She certainly does not like being defined as the wife of a man more famous and important than herself. She starts an affair, and when she realizes that she is not happy as a housewife she breaks up the marriage. Towards the end of the story, when she looks back from middle-age on her life, she still does not seem happy, and she still cannot see that it is her warped view of the world, inherited from her mother, that makes her unhappy.

Morrisappears in Oh, What Avails

Morris grew up with the same attitude as Joan, but was affected differently by it. Instead of feeling like he could have whatever he wanted in love, he pursued money. He does not mind unfairly getting money out of people, even his own sister, and this is perhaps because he also remembers being told that he is special, and somehow better than other people. However, Morris' view of the world is not as bleak as Joan's. Ironically, though he literally looks at the world through one smoky lens, he sees it more clearly than Joan. He is happy to accept his place in it, and can live fairly content with a normal life. He also does not seem to judge others as harshly as Joan.

Like Joan, he idealized Matilda. Unlike Joan, he never got over his worship of her, and still loved her even when she could only think of her ex-husband. He found something to admire in her determination and faithfulness, in her obsessive love for another man. When she finally gave up on this, it was as if she gave up on herself too, and she lost her shine for him. Instead of winning her over, she only turned to him after she had already given up. Ironically, when she is finally ready to accept him as a potential lover, he no longer loves her.

Matildaappears in Oh, What Avails

Matilda also grew up with a difficult mother. Her mother insisted on making a big deal out of Matilda's beauty, and showing it off to the world. Matilda, like Joan and Morris, must have been constantly told how she was special, and better than other people. Matilda's mother demonstrated this fact when she sent Morris home, saying that her daughter was not desperate enough to go to the dance with a "deadeye dick". Unlike Joan, however, Matilda abandoned her beauty as soon as she could. She did not want to be special, because being special meant being different and alienated. She tried to make herself look like other people and fit in, tired of being judged and persecuted based on how she looked. However, her love was still a disaster, since her husband turned out to be a bigamist. She longed for him for her whole life, eventually abandoning her appearance and giving up hope. She is proof that being 'special' can be a burden that only leads to isolation, dissatisfaction and suffering.

Georgiaappears in Differently

Georgia is another housewife who realizes too late that she does not actually love her husband. She married him when she was young, in a time when women were expected to marry and take on the role of housewife and mother. When her friend Maya teaches her that she can expect more in life, she begins to feel more and more dissatisfied. She longs for excitement and a sense of freedom, and to explore who she is beyond simply being Ben's wife. Now she looks back on the affair and the split with a little regret, but a determination that she would not have stayed with Ben if she had to do it again. She is a person who values truth, and will not even consider living in a sham marriage. Ironically, she feels the pain of being betrayed just as she betrays her husband, and it is this that shows her how wrong it is to inflict such pain daily. She would rather end something that is not working than live a lie. She also shows herself to be a very proud woman who cannot respect her friend once she has betrayed her. She cuts Maya out of her life and will not consider forgiving her. This is because Maya had meant a great deal to her, but she had obviously not been held in the same regard. She cannot stand that Maya simply used her as she used everyone else in her life.

Mayaappears in Differently

Maya becomes the friend and mentor of Georgia, but does not have as much feeling for Georgia as Georgia has for her. She considers herself a free spirit who can do whatever she likes in life to make herself happy, and so thinks nothing of using others. She uses her husband for comfort and support, but does not love him, and seeks physical pleasure in affairs. She does not care that she is inflicting constant pain on her husband, who knows of her affairs but worships her too much to leave her. Unlike Georgia, she has no problem living a lie.

Raymondappears in Differently

Raymond is the husband of Maya and clearly worships her. When she dies he is lost and distraught, and though he has married again it is obvious that he cannot stop thinking and talking about Maya. When Georgia comes to visit he seizes the opportunity to revisit the past and in doing so reconnect with Maya. He hints that he suspects Maya of having an affair with her gardener, but he does not seem to blame her particularly. He is bitter that he could not mean everything to her, and has been left with a big hole after her death. He shows the damage that has been left behind by Maya's selfishness.

Anitaappears in Wigtime

Anita grew up on a farm near a small town. It was a difficult childhood in a poor house with lots of siblings, in cold, harsh weather. She walked to school through the biting cold with her friend Margot. Both of them enjoyed school for the escape it brought from their farms, but both dreaded it for the fear of humiliation, rejection and gossip. Both longed to escape their small-town life. Anita held secret feelings for Reuel, the man who drove the school bus, but did not know that Margot also liked him. When Margot began an affair with him, Anita was shocked and felt betrayed in a way. She felt that Margot had managed to escape whereas she was left in the same life. She trained to be a nurse and managed to leave that way, but felt like it was second-best. She would secretly have liked the romance of being swept away by Reuel.

However, when she looks back on her past and sees the life that Margot has, she realizes that Margot never actually escaped at all. Margot still lives in the same town, faced with the same gossip, and her only happiness comes from trying to build the perfect home that she never had. In contrast, Anita managed to find a goal that was hers alone, and gain a sense of purpose beyond small-town life. She gained a PhD, and now her future is still entirely open and filled with possibilities. Margot's is closed off. Like Georgia, Anita also considers a sham marriage worthless. She cannot understand how Margot could stay with Reuel after he betrayed her.

Margotappears in Wigtime

Margot managed to escape the farm where she grew up as well as her abusive father when she began an affair with Reuel and went to live with him. At the time, she felt that she was romantically swept away and saved from suffering but, in fact, she never escaped her small-town life. She was quickly tied down by the responsibilities of children and family, and soon found herself in the same position as Teresa when Reuel betrayed her with a younger girl. Unlike Anita, however, she does not mind living in a sham marriage, and will happily put up with the lies in order to build her perfect home. Her perfect home is only perfect on the inside, however, and seems more like a model than reality. The beautiful rooms cannot be entered or touched, but must be admired from outside. Margot's life now seems sad and desperate, a far cry from what a jealous Anita had imagined.

Teresaappears in Wigtime

Teresa is the war-bride of Reuel, who traveled to Canada from Europe with him. She owns a store on the highway outside town, where Margot and Anita used to stop for coffee on their way to school. Teresa is the woman who is damaged by Margot and Reuel's relationship. She is left alone, cast aside and forgotten. Reuel is all she had, and she had tried to hold desperately onto him even when it had been clear that their relationship was failing, long before he had become involved with Margot. Teresa puts all her energy into loving Reuel and is left with nothing when he leave her. Unlike other characters in this collection, she does not recover and learn to pursue her own goals, but falls into hysteria and is driven mad. Now she can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality.

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