Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022
Richard Rowan and Bertha, unmarried lovers, return from Italy with their eight-year-old son Archie to Dublin, where, although physically at home, they are in spiritual exile. The two people most involved in their return are Robert and Beatrice, first cousins once engaged to be married. Robert, however, was always dominated by Richard’s ideas and was tenuously in love with Bertha. When he recognized Bertha’s love for Richard, he was gradually drawn to Beatrice, who was in love with him. She, too, was always fascinated by Richard and found that, without him, charming but weak Robert became a mere cipher. Finally, her engagement to Robert broke off—a situation from which Beatrice, as she tells Richard, is still in emotional recovery.
Richard thus was a dominant force behind at least three sensitive and intelligent people in their youth. In maturity, his physical passions and his commitment to people still complement his ideals of freedom and integrity. This fact is demonstrated in a conversation with Robert who, while explaining his eagerness to promote Richard’s academic career, declares that he finds in Richard the same faith that a disciple has in his master. Richard answers cryptically that his is a master’s faith in the disciple who will eventually betray him. In this fashion he is trying to indicate to Robert, who uneasily becomes the editor of a conventional Dublin newspaper, his desire to avoid influencing those he loves while remaining wholly loyal to them.
In somewhat the same fashion Richard desires to be united with Bertha, but not to be bound or to bind, even in love. In Italy, Richard was absorbed in his writing and Bertha was often sad and lonely. She remained devoted to him but understood neither his aesthetic standards nor his ethics. In marked contrast is his relationship with Beatrice. She always understands what he writes and is fascinated by his unique courage. Through his exile they corresponded about his writing, and on his return Beatrice comes to his house to give piano lessons to Archie. Upon renewed contact, Richard finds that there is much in Beatrice’s character that he can use in his current novel. This is the most vital bond between them.
Through the perversity of passion Bertha identifies herself with Richard and thus sees his relationship with Beatrice as a love affair. Her concern causes her to crystallize her feeling of loss toward him, and she turns to Robert, whom she always liked because he, too, looks up to Richard. She subsequently explores Robert’s feelings for her and for a time passively accepts his wooing. Once, when Robert visits the house, he brings Bertha roses, a gesture of courtship that confuses and moves her. At that meeting they kiss, and Bertha agrees that they must meet somewhere alone and talk together freely. She half promises to meet Robert at his house that evening.
When Richard questions Bertha about Robert, she answers willingly. At that time he is distressed neither by her involvement nor by Robert’s love for her, but he is angered to learn that she is to meet Robert at the same hour as he, at Robert’s arrangement, is to meet the vice chancellor of the university, where Richard is being considered for the chair of romance literature. He feels that this plan is a betrayal of everything that each of them stands for and that Robert is both a fool and a thief. Richard decides to see Robert himself. His intention infuriates Bertha, who feels that he will simply rob her of their friend’s love and respect.
Having expected Bertha, Robert is discountenanced by Richard’s arrival, but when Richard explains why he came, Robert is most eager to talk to him. While they talk, Richard reveals his own fears and doubts. He feels that by refusing to advise Bertha or to ask anything of her he neglected her, as she accused him. The conflict between personal integrity and love for another person is very real to Richard; he realizes that it is an inevitable one, yet he feels that his guilt destroyed Bertha’s innocence. He expresses to Robert his willingness to let her go if Robert feels that she will find fulfillment with him. Faced with this need to accept moral responsibility, Robert falters. Richard fears that he will ultimately desert Bertha as he did other women in the past.
Richard admits that he desires some kind of betrayal that will enable him to redeem, through the rebuilding of his soul, his guilt and shame. In answer Robert wildly suggests a duel, but it would be a duel between the ghost of fidelity on one side, of friendship on the other. Richard declares wearily that such was the language of his youth, expressing emotions of which he is no longer capable. Completely disoriented by Richard’s rejection of his heroic pose, and distracted by his emotions, Robert flees when Bertha arrives.
The talk between Richard and Bertha in Robert’s cottage leads to a partial resolution of their conflict. Bertha is overwhelmed by Richard’s apparent lack of faith in her, while he is angry that she is using Robert’s love without herself loving him. For the last time she begs Richard to guide her; he merely repeats his statement of faith in her and leaves the house. When Robert returns, Bertha is uneasy with him and maintains against all persuasion that she can never betray Richard.
Surviving her crisis with Robert, Bertha is repossessed by the problem of Beatrice and Richard. After a sleepless night she tells Richard that she wishes she could meet her lover freely. Only later in conversation with Robert, who plans to leave Ireland, does Richard realize what Bertha means, that she wishes she could freely revive her former relationship with him. Out of this desire she is able to accept Richard’s account of his relationship with Beatrice. Thus they arrive at a point at which they can stay together while continuing to live as independent individuals, self-exiled from the passions and the romantic notions of their youth.
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