Summary (Masterplots, Definitive Revised Edition)
When Dr. Ostermark visited his painter friend Axel, he found that Axel was married to a young feminist named Bertha, herself an aspiring artist. Axel explained the conditions of his marriage: the two were to live, not as husband and wife, but as comrades, each with equal rights, each free to achieve artistic expression in his own way. Dr. Ostermark, a widower who, earlier in life, had been divorced, was dubious about the whole thing.
While they were talking, a male model arrived. Axel explained that the model was hired for Bertha and that he, forced to paint commercially to pay for Bertha’s art lessons, could not afford one. Carl Starck, a Swedish army officer, and his wife joined the company. They were shocked that the model posed in the nude and that Bertha was left alone with him.
After the company had gone, Bertha returned. There was a slight altercation over finances, but Bertha kept the argument subdued because she had a favor to ask of Axel. Both had submitted paintings to an important show. It seemed certain that Axel’s would be accepted by the jury, but there was much doubt about Bertha’s. She begged Axel to use his influence—especially on the wife of the jury’s chairman—to have her painting accepted. At first Axel claimed that to do so would be unsporting, but Bertha and her two friends, the masculine female, Abel, and the effeminate male, Willmer, finally convinced him to make the attempt. They even talked him into wearing the ribbon to a Russian decoration which he had vowed never to wear.
Axel carried out his wife’s mission, returned, and then left again as the result of an argument. During his absence Abel arrived with the news that Axel’s own painting had been rejected by the jury. A subsequent letter confirmed her statement. Bertha was triumphant. She and Abel gloated over the downfall of the male.
After Abel had gone, Bertha was visited by a Mrs. Hall, who explained that she was the divorced wife of Dr. Ostermark. The doctor, she claimed, had left her penniless with two young daughters twenty years before. Hearing that Dr. Ostermark was in Paris and that Bertha was a leading feminist, she had come to Bertha for help in devising a plan of vengeance. Bertha promised that she would present Mrs. Hall...
(The entire section is 930 words.)
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