(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Six characters feel enormous tension one Saturday evening between shortly after nine o’clock and midnight in a somber sitting room of an old château surrounded by gardens and a lake. Together with their father, uncle, and grandfather, three young women hopefully await the visit of the father’s and the uncle’s eldest sister, a nun who is the mother superior of her convent, and of the doctor who is to check on their sickly mother in the room on the left and the silent baby in the room on the right.

The family enters the sitting room, disagreeing. The father and the daughters want to sit outside while the uncle, because it rained for one week, prefers to remain inside. The grandfather resolves the dispute by saying that it is better to stay in since one never knows what might happen. The father declares that his wife, who was sick for several weeks, is out of danger from her illness. The grandfather disagrees, since he heard her voice. The uncle supports his brother and recommends that they all relax and enjoy the first pleasant evening they have had in a long time.

The uncle remarks that sickness is like a stranger in the family, and the father notes that one can count only on family members, not outsiders, for help. The men ask Ursula, the eldest daughter, if she can see anyone in the avenue. She sees no one yet, but reports that the avenue is moonlit and the weather fine, that the nightingales can be heard, and that the trees stir a little in the wind.

The mood changes when the grandfather announces that he no longer hears the nightingales. Ursula believes that someone has entered the garden, although she sees no one. The men disbelieve her, but she persists, since the nightingales suddenly fell silent and the swans became frightened. The father agrees that “there is a stillness of death,” but the mood changes again when the uncle asks disgustedly if they are going to discuss nightingales all night.

The conversation turns to the cold room. Ursula and her sisters try to obey their father by shutting the door, but it will not close entirely. The father promises to have the carpenter fix it the next day. The family is then disturbed by the sound of the sharpening of a scythe outside, although the gardener should not be working on a Saturday evening. Ursula again tries to soothe fears by suggesting that perhaps the gardener is occupied in the shadow of...

(The entire section is 984 words.)