Summary In 1957, Sister Leopolda is near death. She has grown increasingly insane in her final years, banging on iron bedsteads with a spoon and ranting about Satan. Marie decides to visit before the sister dies. Because she knows that Satan loves Sister Leopolda more than others, Marie is in no danger of believing Sister Leopolda to be a saint of any kind. So Marie puts on her good royal plum dress, cleans up her daughter Zelda, and they head up the hill together.
When they walk into the dark closet where Sister Leopolda lives, Marie is struck with pity at her shrunken, skinny state, but Sister Leopolda immediately starts in with the insults. After Sister Leopolda insults Marie’s dress, her children, and her state of mind, Marie lashes back, accusing her of not being at all saint-like. The sister dives under the covers, grabs her spoon, and begins banging on the bedstead.
The noise becomes unbearable, and Marie tries to wrestle the spoon from Sister Leopolda. Abruptly, the spoon becomes the focus of Marie’s energy and anger, and they fight for it as if it was a treasure. In a conniving moment, Marie asks for a blessing for her daughter and herself. Sister Leopolda blesses Zelda, but when she starts to bless Marie, Leopolda tries to hit her on the head with the spoon. They again grip the spoon, but Marie has the sensation that she is falling into an open grave and gives up, ready to die. This is written as if it is factual and caused by the tension and struggle between the two women; this section does not seem to be metaphorical, although Marie is clearly in the Sister’s room and not a cemetery. Her fear of falling into an open grave is likened to her fear of death, and the implication is that the struggle with Sister Leopolda causes Marie to come face to face with her greatest fear. However, the Sister does not take advantage of her moment of weakness. The sister reaches a hand through the fog of fear and pulls Marie out of it, and Marie survives. However, the hate is still strong between them. They are evenly matched and neither can defeat the other, thus Marie walks out of the convent unsatisfied. She had wanted to prove herself superior to the nun, but they are too much alike and too evenly matched for Marie to defeat the nun.
Upon returning home, Zelda enters the house first. When Marie finally enters, Zelda hands her Nector’s note, confessing his affair with Lulu and breaking up with her. Marie is distraught. Still in her good dress, she peels all the potatoes in the house and then starts to scrub the floor. Zelda disappears, and Marie thinks to herself while she waxes the floor. She replaces the letter on the kitchen table under the salt canister instead of the sugar canister. She does this because she wants to make it easy for Nector to return to her—that is what she wants most of all—but she also wants him to have some idea of the doubts she has had over the past few hours. By moving the note, she would force Nector to remain with doubts: Was the note where he had left it in the first place? Did Marie read it? Had she read it and decided to forgive him anyway? Did she even now of the note's existence? He would always wonder if it was where he left it, if she had read it, if she knew of it at all and had forgiven...
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him, or if she was completely oblivious to its existence. When Nector returns, she is at the kitchen table. She tells him he has to wait for the wax to dry before he can come in and acts as if she has not seen the note at all. He steps onto the wax, and then she pulls him into the room.
Analysis In Marie's eyes, Sister Leopolda is a strong person. Marie respects her very much, although she disagrees with most everything Sister Leopolda says. When she visits, Marie wants to impress the nun, to show off the life she has created for herself. She wants to appear good and clean and proper.
When she first sees Sister Leopolda, who is living in a dark, closet-like room, Marie feels pity for the old woman. However, the nun’s barbs and insults are too painful, and Sister Leopolda’s crazy behavior in the midst of those clear and observant statements anger Marie. Marie briefly alludes to the physical abuse Sister Leopolda enacted upon her, but even that does not cause the sister’s pride to falter. Although at first Marie felt pity for the shrunken, ancient nun, that pity quickly shifts back to a competitive desire to best her, to beat her at something. The contrast between soft pity and hard antagonism has always characterized their relationship. However, Marie had always thought this was an issue that only affected her. But when the sister refuses to take advantage of Marie’s vulnerability, Marie realizes that the Sister feels pity for her as well. This realization does not lessen the hateful competitiveness between them, but it changes it somehow.
When Marie returns home and finds that Nector is in love with someone else, she realizes that all along she was in an entirely separate competition, one without Sister Leopolda’s involvement, and one that Marie was not aware of. She hadn’t known that Nector was tempted to love anyone else, and she hates that he might do so. Her love for him is fierce, and although she sincerely hates that he could love someone else, she wants to make it possible for him to come back into her life, assuming that he will fail with Lulu.
Nector’s arrival at the doorstep means that Marie has won, at least in this round. Although she wants to make it easy for Nector to return to her, she also wants him to have doubts about the note and whether Marie was aware of its content. She moves the note from under the sugar to under the salt, so that he would never quite know whether she had read it or not. She understands him well enough to know that he wouldn’t ask or bring it up first, thus by moving the note, she has made another play to keep him. In this way, his guilt will always be present, and he'll never know if Marie knew about Lulu and his affair.