(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Agnes and Tobias, an affluent elderly couple married for about forty years, sip after-dinner drinks in their living room one autumnal Friday evening. They chat pleasantly about Agnes’s persistent belief that she might one day easily go mad. Agnes’s younger sister Claire comes down from her room to apologize for an embarrassing incident she caused during dinner and is severely rebuked by Agnes for her drunkenness. Agnes then goes to telephone her daughter Julia, who lives some distance away. Left alone with Claire, Tobias inquires about her previous experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous. She explains that she felt alienated at those meetings and, after relating a bitter anecdote about herself, insisted that she was not an alcoholic because she drank willfully. Agnes returns, informing them that Julia is leaving her husband and will come home immediately. She reproaches Tobias for failing to admonish his daughter appropriately following her three previous divorces, and he responds by telling a story about a cat he once owned that stopped liking him for no apparent reason; when his efforts to regain his pet’s affection failed, he had it euthanized.

While Agnes and Claire comfort him, unexpected guests arrive. Harry and Edna, close friends for forty years, felt uneasy and distressed at home alone. Pressed to explain, they relate that after dinner they suddenly became strangely frightened, for no particular reason. They could no longer endure remaining alone in their house. Agnes offers them Julia’s room for the night, and they retire. Claire suggests that she knows exactly what happened.

Saturday evening before dinner, Agnes tries to calm Julia, who is angry about the intruders who remained locked in her former bedroom all day. Agnes casually describes a psychoanalytical study she is reading about the reversal of sex roles in American society. Feigning the attitude of a father when Tobias enters, Agnes leaves Julia to be counseled by Tobias. Father and daughter merely quibble and argue about her three previous marriages until Claire interrupts them to tell about...

(The entire section is 854 words.)