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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

During the 1920’s, Frau Rosalie von Tümmler is living in Düsseldorf with her unmarried daughter Anna and her teenage son Eduard. Widowed for more than a decade, Frau von Tümmler was the wife of a German lieutenant general who was killed in action in 1914. After his death, she retired to a small villa in Düsseldorf, partly because of the beautiful parks in which she could indulge her love for nature. She has many friends of her own age and older, and she believes her life quite happy. She has always been attractive to men, but as the time for her change of life nears, she and Anna are drawn closer to each other. Anna, who was always cut off from companions of her own age because of her clubfoot, is an abstract painter. Rosalie is often dismayed by her daughter’s canvases of mathematical or symbolic designs, but she tries to understand what Anna is trying to express. On their walks together, they have many long talks on nature and art. Sometimes Rosalie complains that nature is cheating her by taking away her function as a woman while her body remains youthful and her mind as active as ever. Anna tries to convince her that body and soul will soon be brought into harmony by psychological changes following physical ones.

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Rosalie is fifty years old when she hires Ken Keaton, a young American, to give Eduard lessons in English. Keaton is a veteran who chooses to live in Europe after the war. Like most expatriates of his generation, he speaks of his own country as a place of shoddy materialism, a land that in its pursuit of money loses all respect for the art of living. His interest in Rhineland history brings him to Düsseldorf, where he supports himself by tutoring the wives and children of the well-to-do.

Keaton brings a new spirit of youthfulness and vitality into the Tümmler household. Rosalie often listens outside her son’s room to the snatches of conversation and the bursts of laughter she can hear from within; after a time, the young American is accepted as a friend of the family and soon thereafter Rosalie realizes that she is falling in love with the virile young man. Anna, watching what is happening, is greatly disturbed by this promise of her mother’s autumnal romance, especially when Rosalie announces triumphantly that nature gave her a second period of physical flowering by renewing her fertile cycles. Rejoicing in what she believes a miracle of rejuvenation, Rosalie refuses to listen to her daughter’s warnings.

Early in the spring, the Tümmlers and Keaton go on an outing to Holterhof Castle, a rococo structure not far from the city. Rosalie is pleased to show the young American the castle and the park, in which the spirit of earlier German culture was preserved. Keaton brings stale bread to feed the black swans on the castle lake. Rosalie takes some of the bread and nibbles at it playfully while one of the giant swans hisses indignantly for his dinner. In an alcove of the chilly, musty old castle, she throws her arms about the young man and embraces him. On the way home, she decides that she will give herself to Keaton without reserve.

That night, she is taken suddenly ill and rushed to the hospital, where an examination reveals that she is suffering from cancer. Nature plays on her the cruelest of jokes—the signs of renewed fertility were nothing more than the symptoms of coming death.

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Characters