Summary

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374

The play is set in the home of an unnamed family during a few nighttime hours. The parents, three daughters, a newborn baby, and the father’s father all live in a spacious chateau, but the action takes place in the sitting room, which most of the characters enter at the...

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The play is set in the home of an unnamed family during a few nighttime hours. The parents, three daughters, a newborn baby, and the father’s father all live in a spacious chateau, but the action takes place in the sitting room, which most of the characters enter at the outset. As they discuss their concern about the health of the mother and infant, they wait for the father’s sister, a nun, and the doctors, to arrive.

Initial conversations are concerned with the weather, such as whether it is nice enough to sit outside in the garden or it is too damp from the recent rain. The blind grandfather’s preference wins out, indicating his controlling role in the family. He also suggests that any untoward event might occur outside. The other discussion concerns the mother’s health; the Father thinks she is improving, but the Grandfather disagrees. The Uncle (the Father’s brother) tries to smooth things over and create a more relaxed atmosphere.

The Grandfather’s anxiety soon dominates the conversation and the play’s tone. They all have opinions about the Mother’s situation, in particular, and about illness in general. Waiting for the sister’s arrival turns into apprehension about who or what might be outside. Looking out into the road for her aunt, Ursula instead says she thinks she sees someone in the garden, and that the birds (nightingales) have stopped singing. Their conversation ranges among the room, with a door that will not shut properly; the light, which is dimmer than normal; and, after he falls asleep, the Grandfather’s declining mental condition.

Soon everyone starts to hear noises, and they think someone has entered the house, certainly the sister. However, the maid-servant says she did not arrive. The grandfather becomes convinced that someone is in the sitting room with them, not just in the house, but the others disagree. He decides that he should go into the mother’s room and check on her, but the others discourage him. As it grows darker inside and silent outside, the infant wails offstage and the mother’s nurse comes in to tell them she has died. They all rush off to her room, leaving the grandfather alone.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 984

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 house.

Everyone’s attention turns to the lamp, which did not burn very well that evening, although its oil was filled that same morning. One daughter notes that, after not sleeping for three nights, the grandfather finally has dozed off. While he sleeps, the father and the uncle discuss his blindness and his irrationality. When the clock strikes ten, the grandfather awakens, saying someone is standing by the glass door leading to the terrace. Although Ursula reassures him that she sees no one, he thinks someone is waiting there. When he asks the father and the uncle if their sister has arrived, the uncle peevishly remarks that it is now too late for her to come and that it is not very nice of her.

Everyone hears a noise as if someone is entering the house, and they believe it is finally the long-awaited nun. After the father summons the maidservant, the grandfather notes twice that she is not alone. When the father asks the maidservant who entered the house, she replies that no one came in. The father accuses her of pushing open the door to the sitting room, although she is standing three steps from it. Although blind, the grandfather announces that suddenly everything seems to be dark in the room. The maidservant’s exit is marked by eleven strokes of the old clock.

The grandfather thinks the maidservant entered their room and is now sitting at their table. His anxiety grows, and he begs Ursula to tell him the truth. He urges his children to tell him who is sitting beside him, who entered the room, and what is happening around him. He is amazed that they see no one besides the six of them. He announces that he probably will not live much longer and that he wishes he was at home. The father protests that he already is at home. The grandfather wishes to be with his daughter because he wants to know the truth. He reassures the daughters that he knows they would tell him the truth if they were not deceived by the men.

Finally, the father invites the grandfather to enter his daughter’s room, but the old man refuses; the uncle remarks that he is not being reasonable. Suddenly the lamp goes out completely, and the men decide to remain in the dark rather than enter the sick woman’s room. Now the clock seems very loud. Ursula is asked to open the window a bit. All notice that there is no sound outside. The silence inside and out is extraordinary. The uncle begins to pace in the darkness, after declaring that he does not like the country. The grandfather asks Ursula to shut the window.

Suddenly an odd ray of moonlight penetrates the room’s darkness. The clock strikes midnight; someone unidentified seems to rise from the table, the uncle calls for the lamp to be lit, the baby wails in terror, and heavy steps are heard in the mother’s room. Then all fall silent. The door to the sick woman’s chamber opens. There stands the sister of charity, dressed in black. Her bow and the sign of the cross announce silently that the mother has died. All enter the bedroom except the grandfather, who is left alone to grope about the table in confusion.

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