Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1209
Design for Living opens in Otto’s shabby Paris studio, at about ten o’clock on a spring morning. Gilda adds a coffeepot and milk jug to the breakfast table, laid for two, looks into the bedroom, and closes the door. She answers a knock at the front door, and Ernest enters, carrying an Henri Matisse painting he wishes to show to Otto. Gilda claims that Otto has neuralgia and must be left undisturbed. They discuss Otto’s talent and Gilda’s maternal concern for him; Gilda complains of the squalor of the studio, and Ernest complains of the untidiness of Gilda’s emotional life, asking why she does not marry Otto. It is not because they are dashingly bohemian, Gilda assures him, but because marriage offers her nothing she wants.
Ernest announces that Leo has returned on the Mauretania from the successful production of his play in Chicago. Gilda wonders uneasily about the changes success may bring but is not envious of it. She reiterates her love for Otto, warns that an explosion is impending, and reveals that she finds her own feminine drives humiliating. Otto returns from Bordeaux with a rejected portrait under his arm, and Gilda sends him away with Ernest in search of Leo—who emerges from the bedroom as soon as they disappear. Leo and Gilda discuss their real motives in having an affair: Leo was jealous because Gilda had originally preferred Otto; Gilda has a predatory female nature and is attracted and unsettled by Leo’s success. Leo recollects his and Otto’s first quarrel over Gilda, when he pushed Otto into the bath and he became wedged in it. Otto reenters to find Leo and Gilda in gales of laughter. Otto guesses the truth, and in spite of Gilda’s and Leo’s reassurances about how much they love him, he resents their laughter, describes their affair as treachery, and storms out.
Act 2, scene 1 takes place eighteen months later, in Leo’s comfortable London flat. The curtain rises on Gilda and Leo reading the review of his latest hit. Gilda offends him by agreeing with the critic who says that Leo’s play Change and Decay is thin. They argue about the effect of Leo’s success on his work and on their lives and agree that something is missing. Gilda rejects the idea of marriage as offensive to her moral principles—and upsetting to Otto. She dislikes the social whirl Leo’s status involves; she feels unoccupied, bored and boring, and parasitic. Leo accepts an invitation to attend a weekend house party, but Gilda decides to stay home. They argue again about success, and Leo points out that change is inevitable and a return to the past impossible. Although he is not pleased to see a reporter, the curtain falls on him posing for photographs.
Act 2, scene 2 takes place a few days later. Having talked to the cleaning lady about the unattractiveness of marriage, Gilda is alone when Otto enters. Now a successful painter, he has just returned from a cruise on a Norwegian freighter and has come to visit Leo. Otto and Gilda rush into each other’s arms. She says that when she and Leo felt something was missing, it must have been Otto. They discuss his reaction eighteen months earlier to Gilda’s affair. Otto explains that he no longer feels any resentment; Gilda explains that their laughter was caused by hysteria.
Otto, like Leo, defends his success and accuses Gilda of having romantic notions about love among struggling artists, notions about a time that has gone forever. He also argues that the love he and Gilda feel for each other is not degrading. It is now his turn. Gilda, Otto, and Leo have intertwined lives and are not conventional people, so their behavior concerns no one but themselves and harms no one. They can be condemned only by the irrelevant codes of those who are unlike them. The scene ends with Gilda and Otto together on the sofa, as Otto shouts...
(The entire section contains 1929 words.)
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