The Lady of Situations

by Louis Auchincloss

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

By entitling his book The Lady of Situations, Auchincloss points to the fact that his heroine, Natica Chauncey, attains success by treating every difficult situation not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. Her independent spirit and her clear-sightedness qualify Natica for her role as a heroine. However, her life story suggests that a woman such as Natica will often sacrifice others in order to fulfill her own potential.

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The Lady of Situations is for the most part narrated by an omniscient author. However, the novel is framed by first-person narratives entitled “Ruth’s Memoir,” in which Natica’s aunt, Ruth Felton, reports her observations, thus functioning much like a Greek chorus. A similar passage appears at three other points in the book.

The novel begins in the 1960’s, with Ruth, now in her seventies, recalling the time three decades before when Natica’s difficulties began. Natica’s bankrupt father spends his time perfecting his fly-fishing technique; her mother refuses to admit that the Chauncey name no longer means anything. She is too obtuse to let Ruth pay Natica’s way through a prestigious private school, where she could make the friendships that would serve her in later life.

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The primary narrator now takes up Natica’s story. After graduating from Barnard College, Natica meets and marries Thomas Barnes, an assistant rector at Averhill School. Unlike her naïve husband, Natica sees Averhill as it is, a hotbed of hypocrisy and malice. However, after autocratic headmaster Reverend Rufus Lockwood makes Natica his secretary, she enjoys feeling powerful and is almost happy. Unfortunately, when Lockwood’s wife realizes that Natica has some influence over him, he is forced to fire her.

By now, Natica is so bored with her husband and the school that she embarks upon an affair with a new teacher, the wealthy, charming Stephen Hill. After she becomes pregnant, Hill insists on her divorcing Barnes and marrying him. Ever the pragmatist, Natica agrees. Though he is the innocent party, Barnes is dismissed from Averhill, becomes a military chaplain, and is later killed in wartime.

Meanwhile, Natica has miscarried. She is somewhat relieved, however, because she feared that the child would resemble Barnes, who was probably his father. Back in the United States, Hill’s mother, who adores Natica, arranges for her to be accepted by society. However, Hill proves to be lazy and moody. Realizing that he resents her success in business, Natica quits her job and persuades Hill’s mother to buy them a bookstore. When he learns from Barnes that he was not the father of the child Natica lost, Hill shoots himself.

Again, Natica makes the best of things. She persuades Hill’s mother to pay her way through law school and then joins a law firm, where she finally meets a man she can both love and respect. When she appears in the final “Memoir,” set in 1966, Natica is happily married and has three children, as well as a flourishing law practice.

Ruth points out, however, that Natica has made her way to success by manipulating some people and destroying others, notably two husbands. Natica just laughs, but Ruth muses that she would rather be an old maid than have Natica’s memories. Ruth fulfills the role of the Greek chorus, raising the moral questions that Natica does not choose to ask.

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