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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

Edward, a recent graduate of a teachers college, is visiting his amiable farmer brother. Although now happily settled into his new existence, Edward’s brother was once expelled from Edward’s college for laughing at a fellow student’s exaggerated grief over Joseph Stalin’s death. That student, who later denounced Edward’s brother to the authorities, is now the director of a school in a small town. Edward’s brother advises him that because “she was always after young boys,” Edward should apply to her for a position. Edward calls on Miss Chehachkova, the director, whose very “ugliness” puts him at ease, and soon he is teaching at her school.

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Though indifferent to his teaching duties, Edward is soon pursuing the beautiful young Alice in the town. Alice, however, is reserved, and one day asks Edward if he believes in God. Unwilling to admit that he does not, Edward says that he does believe but is “bothered by doubts.” Edward attends church with Alice, but as he is leaving he is seen by the director. He later excuses his behavior to the director by claiming an interest in “the baroque interior of the cathedral.” During the following weeks, Edward pursues Alice but is frustrated by her sexual puritanism. For tactical reasons, he begins to read the Bible, study theology, and “exaggerate his religiousness.”

At school, Edward is soon called in for “a friendly and unofficial talk” with a panel that includes the director. Deciding that the momentum of events makes it impossible to tell the truth, Edward untruthfully says that he does believe in God, although quite unwillingly. The director, disarmed, praises him for his apparent honesty, and says that she personally will oversee Edward’s future intellectual development. Visiting her apartment on a required visit, Edward finds the director well disposed toward him, but he also has an uncomfortable vision of the sadness and intense loneliness of her life. They exchange expressions of regard, and before he leaves, Edward even says, untruthfully, that he finds her “pretty.”

Confident that he is now safe from official displeasure, Edward attends church again with Alice. She seems “somehow different” and proud to be seen with him. Eventually he realizes that a distorted report of events at his hearing has turned him into a sympathetic public figure. Although he realizes that Alice’s new feelings toward him are “an undeserved gift,” Edward makes arrangements for them to spend the weekend at his brother’s cottage in the country.

Edward later visits the director, as required. She has cognac set out for him, and as the conversation gradually turns personal, Edward realizes that he is in a changed and “irreversible” situation. It becomes obvious that the director expects advances from Edward that he fears his physical aversion to her will make impossible. Eventually, seizing on a sudden inspiration, Edward springs away from her, saying that he is afraid of “sin.” The director persists, until Edward, in desperation, imperiously orders her to kneel, clasp her hands, and pray. Momentarily swayed, the director obeys. This unexpected reversal enables Edward to regain his confidence and overcome his physical antipathy. He succeeds in making love to the director.

That Saturday, Edward takes Alice to the country and finds that her puritanism has disappeared, along with her religious scruples. Despite Alice’s beauty, Edward is obscurely irritated by this, and he begins to see Alice in a new and unflattering way. He also has a disagreement with his brother, who has learned something about Edward’s recent life. His brother attacks dissembling, but Edward argues that in a world of madmen, one can hardly afford to tell the truth.

As the lovers return to town, Edward is overcome with a wave of anger and disgust at Alice, at the “shadowy people” he has struggled to accommodate, and at himself. He picks an ugly fight with Alice, whom he cruelly charges with “sin” and a betrayal of her religious principles. He is soon able to precipitate a break.

This “curious anger” passes, but Edward does not seek a reconciliation. He continues to visit the director, while beginning to pursue other women. These activities cause Edward to appreciate the “solitary walks” that he has begun to take, which often end at the church. The narrator warns the reader not to be “apprehensive”—Edward is not beginning to believe in God. Nevertheless, as the years pass, Edward begins to long for the “essential” that he has never found in his “unessential” work, love affairs, and thought. At the moment the narrator chooses to take leave of him, Edward is in church, sunk as usual into a deep sorrow over the nonexistence of God. Suddenly, from that sorrow there “emerges the genuine living face of God.” Edward breaks into a happy smile.

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