Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930
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 and her two daughters to the unsuspecting doctor at a masquerade party which she and Axel were to give the following evening.
Bertha planned that the party was also to further Axel’s humiliation: she had ordered a dancing girl’s costume for him to wear. When Axel returned, the quarrel over finances was resumed. Bertha taunted Axel with the charge that he was quibbling because her painting had been accepted and his had not. This charge angered him. When he saw his costume for the masquerade, he left again, completely enraged.
Abel and Bertha devised still another humiliation for Axel: they planned to arrange for the rejected painting to be brought home during the party. While they were contemplating their success, Willmer arrived with liquor and tobacco which they had ordered as supplies for a pseudo-masculine orgy. Willmer agreed to see that the painting was brought in at the right time. When he tried to make love to Bertha, she slapped and insulted him. As he left, Abel warned Bertha that it was dangerous to turn a friend into an enemy.
Bertha waited hours that night for Axel to come home. When he finally did come in, she attempted to placate him with genuinely feminine wiles, but he informed her that it was too late for her to become feminine; he had regarded her as a comrade for too long. Besides, he had just been with a woman who was truly a woman. His intentions were to divorce her. Also, having learned from Willmer that she had mismanaged his finances, he intended to demand financial reparations as well. Bertha was reduced to purely female pleading, but Axel was adamant. His only concession was to hold off the proceeding until after the party.
At the party, everything went wrong for Bertha. Axel refused to wear the effeminate costume. Starck recognized Mrs. Hall’s daughters as a pair of prostitutes who had once accosted him and a fellow officer. Then Dr. Ostermark, confronted by Mrs. Hall, who by that time was too drunk to stand, revealed that he had divorced the woman twenty years before because she was a confirmed dipsomaniac and that the two daughters were not his at all but the results of a subsequent marriage or liaison.
Bertha’s final blow was the return of the rejected painting, not Axel’s, but Bertha’s. Axel confessed that, like a good comrade, he had switched numbers on the paintings so that Bertha’s might have the advantage of his name. The advantage had not been enough, it proved, to overcome the poor workmanship. When Willmer admitted arranging for its return during the party, Axel threw him out bodily.
Bertha now resorted to taunts inspired by jealousy. Axel was getting rid of her, she claimed, because he was in love with Abel. Axel assured her that the notion was preposterous—no more feminists for him. He had, he admitted, a womanly woman to take her place.
Defeated, Bertha begged to be allowed to see him again. He would see her, he agreed, but in the place where one ought to see comrades, in the cafe. At home he would see his wife.
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