(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Charles and Ruth Condomine await three dinner guests, one of whom is the celebrated medium Madame Arcati, who is to hold a séance after dinner. The purpose of this séance—although Madame Arcati is not told this—is to allow Charles to gather background material for his new thriller, The Unseen. While waiting, Ruth attempts to teach the new maid, Edith, some discipline and decorum. Conversation turns to the subject of Charles’s former wife, Elvira, who died of a heart attack brought on by a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

Ruth, who was also married before, claims that she does not mind in the least being thought less attractive than Elvira, although the manner in which she brings the subject up and Charles’s determination to avoid making any such judgment suggest that she does mind. It seems that Ruth feels that she is still, in some sense, competing with her predecessor for her husband’s affections. She suggests to Charles that he was dominated by women throughout his life and still remains under Elvira’s spell. He denies this but says that if it were so then Ruth is obviously the one presently running his life.

When the Condomines’ friends, the Bradmans, arrive, the discussion switches to the topic of Madame Arcati, whom all know only by sight and reputation. Charles is dismissive of her literary endeavors, which include fantasies for children and biographies of minor members of the royal families of Europe. Madame Arcati eventually arrives on her bicycle.

Before the séance begins, Madame Arcati puts the popular song “Always” on the gramophone because her spirit guide—a child named Daphne—likes music. The séance is rather chaotic to begin with, producing a good deal of table-rapping and an abundance of sarcastic remarks that begin to annoy the medium. Charles’s mood undergoes a dramatic change, however, when he hears Elvira’s voice speaking to him—a voice that, as becomes clear, no one else (except, of course, the audience) can hear. Madame Arcati faints, and when she regains consciousness...

(The entire section is 848 words.)