What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller is a psychological thriller about obsessive desire and predatory relationships gone awry. Set in 1996 at St. George’s, a London comprehensive school, the novel revolves around a young teacher, Sheba Hart, her fifteen-year-old student Steven Connolly, and Barbara Covett, an older history teacher. The story is told in a first-person narrative, by the character Barbara, in a manuscript style with a confidential tone, much like a diary. Barbara appoints herself as Sheba’s caretaker from the start, but the reader soon realizes that she is obsessed with Sheba and, therefore, is an unreliable narrator. The scandal in the novel is the affair Sheba has with Steven, her young student. However, while the surface level of the novel is dedicated to exploring the sexual affair, underlying that is the relationship between Barbara and Sheba. At the end, the reader may ask himself or herself, which relationship was more scandalous—the relationship between Sheba and Steven or the one between Barbara and Sheba? This novel is more than a cautionary tale against illicit relationships; it is an in-depth exploration of the devastating force of obsession.
In the foreword, Sheba and Barbara are living together in Sheba’s brother’s home in North London while he and his family are away in India on vacation. The year is 1998, after the affair has taken place. Barbara is telling the story because she feels someone needs to explain Sheba’s motivations. While at her brother’s home, having already been terminated from St. George’s, arrested, and then let out on bail, Sheba feels she can let her guard down. She confides in Barbara, telling her of the first moments she spent with Steven Connolly, the fifteen-year-old student she had the affair with the previous year. She is completely trusting of Barbara and does not hesitate to reveal the most unflattering details of their affair. Barbara listens in a very accepting way, but the manner in which she describes Sheba’s character reveals she is harshly judgmental. Writing in her journal about Sheba, Barbara says, “(S)he is inclined to romanticize the relationship and to underestimate the irresponsibility—the wrongness—of her actions. What remorse she expresses tends to be remorse for having been found out.” Barbara claims to be on Sheba’s side, but the way she speaks about Sheba suggests she despises her. Barbara tells the reader how she nurses Sheba daily with her cooking, almost like a sick person, and how she listens to Sheba tell her story of the affair, over and over again.
The key relationship between Barbara and Sheba is already established in the foreword. Barbara is narrating and telling the reader what she wants them to believe. Barbara’s perceptions of the affair and how it unfolded are all contained in her notes or journal entries. Sheba is the subject, but the reader cannot see her actions directly and then decide; instead the reader rely on Barbara.
Chapter 1 begins on Sheba’s first day at St. George’s school in the winter term of 1996. Barbara is describing Sheba’s outfit, which she says is like that of a sexy doctor played by an actress. She recounts every detail of Sheba’s face, skirt, and shoes. It is almost as if she is studying her. She tells the reader of the talk in the staff room about Sheba, the kind of teacher she is and the faults she finds in her teaching. However, Barbara has never actually spoken to Sheba at this point. Barbara is obviously obsessed with her colleague. Curiously, though, she does not yet have the nerve to even approach Sheba. At this point in the novel, the reader begins to wonder if Barbara's version of the story can be trusted.
In Chapter 2, Barbara reveals that she keeps her manuscript about Sheba under her bed. She buys gold sticky stars to put in the journal to designate the seminal points in her narration of Sheba's life. She describes...
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