Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

On the eve of his niece’s wedding, the narrator and his family attend a dinner party given in her honor. The bride, who is marrying relatively late in life, originally vowed to spend her years in a convent. The narrator wonders why she has changed her mind; he muses ironically that she more likely was seduced than converted.

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During dinner, the narrator is in a jolly mood because his wife has convinced Dr. Paoli to allow him to eat and drink whatever he wants on this occasion. Normally, he is on a severe diet but, free to indulge himself now, he feels like “running and jumping like a dog slipped from his chain.” This rebellious feeling makes him drink an inordinate amount of a dry Istrian wine, which he hopes will make him forget the cares of life. The wine does not bring him gaiety and forgetfulness, however, but merely makes him even more angry and depressed.

In the midst of the festivities, the narrator—who is a socialist—argues with Giovanni, a capitalist, about the value of money. Their debate becomes heated and vicious; finally the narrator shouts at Giovanni: “We will hang you, a rope round your neck and weights on your feet.” Almost immediately, he feels astonished and guilty for having made such a remark. After his sister intervenes to comment on how well he looks, his wife asks him to stop drinking and tells a neighbor to take away his wine. Soon, everyone present begins rebuking him; this makes him even more irate. He is increasingly angry with his wife for humiliating him in such a fashion. When even his daughter, Emma, feels the need to berate him, he scolds her and causes her to cry, creating yet another occasion for guilt and recrimination. Not even when the bride bestows on him a good night kiss does the narrator’s anger abate.

At the moment of departure, someone mentions the name of Anna, an old friend whom the narrator courted until the day that he married his present wife. The narrator is suddenly struck by pangs of conscience as he remembers his “offence against love.” That night he goes to bed severely depressed. Once in bed, he cannot sleep as he wrestles with the physical discomfort of drinking too much and the psychological pain of his depression. Feeling a burning sensation in his stomach, he tosses and turns in an uncontrollable rage, until he must call for help. After his wife gives him some drops recommended by the doctor, he closes his eyes, thinks of all of the women whom he knew in his youth, especially of Anna, and he falls asleep.

In a horrible dream, the narrator finds himself in a dark cave, sitting on a stool next to a glass chest. Instinctively, he understands that he has been chosen to be asphyxiated in the chest in order to atone for the sins of others. The cave was built by men as a cure for themselves, even though it is fatal to those imprisoned in it. His wife and the guests at the dinner party are with him in the darkness of the cave; all of them exhort him to climb into the glass chest. The bride is also present; she confirms that the chest is indeed meant for him and urges him to comply. In his despair, the narrator shouts that he is willing to give up his daughter Emma in return for his own safety. When he awakens with a start, he realizes that he was about to sacrifice his own daughter in order to save himself (even though his wife thinks that he is calling his daughter’s name out of love). He concludes that he must never return to that horrible cave.

The narrator is now ready to obey the doctor’s orders and become submissive until the “last fever” when he will definitively confront the glass chest and leap into it willingly.

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