Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1166
Two women are in a bedroom. One is playing with her rubber gloves, alternately fanning her arms and folding them again. This greatly irritates the other woman, who finally yells, in an exaggerated fashion, “Those gloves! Those eternal gloves!” She continues yelling at her maid, insulting her, accusing her of trying to seduce the milkman. She tells her maid to take the gloves and leave them in the kitchen, which the maid does.
The younger woman—Madame—sits at the dressing table, calling for the maid—Claire—to lay out her clothes and jewels. Madame again taunts Claire about the milkman. When Claire spits on the shoes to polish them, Madame expresses her disapproval and remarks that Claire hates her, that Claire is smothering her with attention and flowers.
Madame then drops her overexaggerated tragic tone and briefly speaks to Claire as an equal about the milkman, who despises them. Just as quickly, she recovers her tone, demanding her white dress. Claire refuses and explains why. In her explanation, she mentions Monsieur, who is Madame’s lover, and widowhood. This brings up the fact that Madame has denounced Monsieur in a letter to the police, although he is only imprisoned, not dead. She declares her devotion to him, swearing that she will follow him even to Devil’s Island, and therefore she should wear white, to mourn like a queen.
As Claire helps Madame into her dress, Madame complains that Claire smells like the servants’ quarters. Madame says that it is more difficult to be a mistress, because she has to be both a mistress and a servant, containing all the hatred of a servant and her own beauty.
Claire, inspired by Madame’s confession, begins raving and tells Madame how much she hates her. During her tirade, she spits on Madame’s dress and accuses her of wanting to steal the milkman. Madame loses control, and Claire slaps her face to prove they are on the same level. Her talk becomes more and more ominous, as she speaks of rebellion and hatred that emanates from the maids’ quarters, from the kitchen.
Suddenly, an alarm clock rings, and the two women grasp each other. The woman who is impersonating Madame starts removing her dress. She complains that the woman who is impersonating Claire does not finish. The real Claire puts on her maid’s outfit. The two begin straightening up the room and waiting for the real Madame to return. That night is special, since Claire actually has written the letter leading to Monsieur’s arrest.
Solange, Claire’s older sister, begins taunting Claire about her dressing up at night and pretending to be a queen. Claire counters that Solange is scared of having put Monsieur in jail. Solange declares that no one loves them, but Claire disagrees. She says Madame loves them. Solange says Madame loves them “like her bidet,” and that they, the maids, can love no one because filth cannot love filth. She calls her spit her spray of diamonds.
Claire wants to talk of Madame’s kindness. Solange points out how easy it is to be kind if you are beautiful and rich. Otherwise, you have to act like Claire, dressing up in Madame’s clothes and parading around the bedroom. Claire points out that it is Solange who is so taken with the idea of following her lover to Devil’s Island when it is her turn to play Madame. Claire tells Solange that she will not disturb her fantasy; she hates her for other reasons. Claire tells Solange that she knows her sister tried to kill Madame, but symbolically it is Claire she is trying to kill. Solange admits to the attempt, but claims she did it to free Claire from Madame’s bittersweet kindness, even though she knows Claire will denounce her. When Solange sees the figure of Madame, however, she is unable to carry through with her plot. She compares her own dignity to Madame’s, and remarks how Madame is transfigured by grief.
The phone rings; it is Monsieur calling to say he has been released on bail. Solange blames Claire for the failure of their plan, but Claire retorts that it is Solange who has failed to kill Madame earlier, thus forcing Claire to try the letter. Claire calls Solange weak and says she would have been able to kill Madame in her sleep. She claims that where Solange has bungled, she, Claire, will succeed.
Claire compares the act of killing Madame to stories in history of women guided by visions and religion to kill. She will be supported, she says, by her milkman, and they will be saved. The two begin to formulate a new plan to kill Madame when she returns home. Solange tries to comfort her, but Madame declares that she will follow Monsieur to Devil’s Island if necessary.
Madame starts planning her mourning when Claire comes in with the drugged tea. Madame pulls the red dress out of the closet and gives it to her as a gift. She gives Solange her fur stole. She is about to go to bed when she notices the phone is off the hook. When she asks why, Claire and Solange mention that Monsieur is out on bail and waiting for Madame. She orders Solange to get a taxi. While she is waiting, Claire offers to heat up the tea, but Madame is not interested. When Solange finally returns with the taxi, Claire makes one final effort to get Madame to drink the tea, but fails.
After Madame leaves, Solange reprimands Claire for failing. She warns that Madame and Monsieur will find out that Claire has written the letters. She is sick that Madame’s joy comes from the maids’ shame. Solange decides it is time for the two to flee, but Claire is exhausted and thinks it is too risky. They already lost control of so much, the slightest mistake would show their guilt. They recommence their game. Solange tells Claire to skip the preliminaries and go straight to the transformation. In Madame’s white dress, Claire begins insulting the maid right away, comparing maids to grave diggers, scavengers, and police, calling them the distorting mirrors of respectable society.
After more of the bizarre game, during which Solange makes “Madame” crawl and whip her, Claire becomes sick, and Solange takes her to the kitchen. Solange returns to the bedroom alone, speaking to invisible people. She says Madame is dead, strangled by the rubber gloves. She imitates Madame and speaks to an imaginary detective and to Madame and Monsieur. She speaks of the dignity of servants, which she says the police, as outcasts themselves, would understand but Madame and Monsieur never would. Claire reenters the room as Madame and asks for her tea. She clearly understands what she is doing, as does Solange, who refuses. Finally, she relents, and Claire drinks the tea while Solange sees in it Madame’s death and the maids’ assumption.