Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1603
What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller is a psychological thriller about obsessive desire and predatory relationships gone awry. Set in 1996 at St. George’s, a London comprehensive school, the novel revolves around a young teacher, Sheba Hart, her fifteen-year-old student Steven Connolly, and Barbara Covett, an older history teacher. The story is told in a first-person narrative, by the character Barbara, in a manuscript style with a confidential tone, much like a diary. Barbara appoints herself as Sheba’s caretaker from the start, but the reader soon realizes that she is obsessed with Sheba and, therefore, is an unreliable narrator. The scandal in the novel is the affair Sheba has with Steven, her young student. However, while the surface level of the novel is dedicated to exploring the sexual affair, underlying that is the relationship between Barbara and Sheba. At the end, the reader may ask himself or herself, which relationship was more scandalous—the relationship between Sheba and Steven or the one between Barbara and Sheba? This novel is more than a cautionary tale against illicit relationships; it is an in-depth exploration of the devastating force of obsession.
In the foreword, Sheba and Barbara are living together in Sheba’s brother’s home in North London while he and his family are away in India on vacation. The year is 1998, after the affair has taken place. Barbara is telling the story because she feels someone needs to explain Sheba’s motivations. While at her brother’s home, having already been terminated from St. George’s, arrested, and then let out on bail, Sheba feels she can let her guard down. She confides in Barbara, telling her of the first moments she spent with Steven Connolly, the fifteen-year-old student she had the affair with the previous year. She is completely trusting of Barbara and does not hesitate to reveal the most unflattering details of their affair. Barbara listens in a very accepting way, but the manner in which she describes Sheba’s character reveals she is harshly judgmental. Writing in her journal about Sheba, Barbara says, “(S)he is inclined to romanticize the relationship and to underestimate the irresponsibility—the wrongness—of her actions. What remorse she expresses tends to be remorse for having been found out.” Barbara claims to be on Sheba’s side, but the way she speaks about Sheba suggests she despises her. Barbara tells the reader how she nurses Sheba daily with her cooking, almost like a sick person, and how she listens to Sheba tell her story of the affair, over and over again.
The key relationship between Barbara and Sheba is already established in the foreword. Barbara is narrating and telling the reader what she wants them to believe. Barbara’s perceptions of the affair and how it unfolded are all contained in her notes or journal entries. Sheba is the subject, but the reader cannot see her actions directly and then decide; instead the reader rely on Barbara.
Chapter 1 begins on Sheba’s first day at St. George’s school in the winter term of 1996. Barbara is describing Sheba’s outfit, which she says is like that of a sexy doctor played by an actress. She recounts every detail of Sheba’s face, skirt, and shoes. It is almost as if she is studying her. She tells the reader of the talk in the staff room about Sheba, the kind of teacher she is and the faults she finds in her teaching. However, Barbara has never actually spoken to Sheba at this point. Barbara is obviously obsessed with her colleague. Curiously, though, she does not yet have the nerve to even approach Sheba. At this point in the novel, the reader begins to wonder if Barbara's version of the story can be trusted.
In Chapter 2, Barbara reveals that she keeps her manuscript about Sheba under her bed. She buys gold sticky stars to put in the journal to designate the seminal points in her narration of Sheba's life. She describes all of Sheba’s comings and goings at the school and the committees Sheba is on. On one occasion, she watches Sheba from her classroom window and sees Sheba laughing with another teacher. Barbara hides so that they do not see her spying. Because she is constantly watching Sheba, Barbara knows much about her already, but they have not developed a friendship. She is still trying to find a way to make Sheba like her.
Chapter 3 recounts the beginning of Sheba’s relationship with Steven Connolly and Barbara’s relationship with Sheba. Both relationships are entered into blindly and therefore are built on shaky ground. Steven visits Sheba’s art studio at the end of the day to discuss art. Sheba views him as intelligent and imaginative and as having been misunderstood by the other teachers. She gives him extra attention but is unaware of his sexual interests. Barbara tries insinuate herself into Sheba’s life by helping Sheba discipline her students.
In Chapter 4, Sheba’s life becomes increasingly dominated by both Steven and Barbara. Steven kisses Sheba and she feels overwhelmed. However, she does not discourage him. Barbara takes charge of Sheba’s decisions in terms of disciplining her class. Sheba allows her. Both Barbara and Steven have overstepped their boundaries, but Sheba does not not stop them.
In Chapter 5, Sheba allows herself to be led into the woods by Steven one evening. Although Sheba wants to make love to the teenager, the cold weather prevents them from doing so. Sheba feels rather excited to have a secret that she keeps from Richard, her husband. Still, Sheba wishes she could share her adventure with Steven with her husband. Sheba's grasp on reality is slipping, as she is unable to see how Richard would react to her actions.
Sheba invites Barbara for dinner at their home in Chapter 6. This marks a critical point in their relationship. Barbara feels like Sheba will become her best friend. However, Barbara harshly judges Sheba’s spouse and her children. This shows the reader how obsessive and jealous Barbara is about Sheba. That evening, Sheba confesses to Barbara her relationship with Steven, but she does not reveal the whole truth. She only discloses that Steven has kissed her. Barbara tells her to break it off with Steven or she will tell the headmaster. Sheba reluctantly agrees.
Chapters 7 through 10 are dedicated to showing Sheba continuing her affair with Steven and their escalating involvement. In Chapter 11, Sheba admits to Barbara that she did not cut it off with Steven as she had promised. Barbara pretends to be empathetic, but she is furious. Barbara seems more like a spurned lover. She decides to make Sheba pay for her deception. She plots her revenge and invites Sheba to her sister’s house by the seaside over Easter break.
In Chapter 12, Sheba and Barbara are at Barbara’s sister’s house on the seaside. Sheba talks a lot about Steven, and Barbara becomes angry. She tries to talk about her cat Portia, who is dying of cancer, but Sheba offers little sincere consolation. Barbara cries about her cat and takes it upon herself to touch Sheba, explaining it as a thing that girls do when they are together. She takes Sheba’s arm and sensuously runs her fingers up and down it; then she asks Sheba to do the same to her. Sheba is disgusted and says it is sexual and creepy. The phone rings and Sheba says she has to go meet Steven. Barbara begs her to stay but she leaves.
In Chapter 13, Barbara avoids Sheba and has a meeting with Brian Bangs, the math teacher, at a restaurant. Bangs invites her to his apartment where he confesses his interest in Sheba. Barbara says he is not Sheba’s type; and she hints that Sheba is having an affair with one of her students. Mr. Bangs is alarmed.
A few days later when Barbara goes to Scotland with Sheba, she mentions that Mr. Bangs may know about her affair with Steven. Sheba is shocked and fearful. Barbara lets Sheba stew in her fears. After returning from Scotland, Sheba tries to reach Steven, but he refuses to see her. She knows that he is tiring of their relationship and Sheba feels terribly depressed.
Headmaster Pabblem learns of Sheba’s affair in Chapter 15. He calls Sheba at home and demands that she report to his office immediately because of alleged inappropriate conduct. A few minutes later, Mrs. Connolly arrives at Sheba’s doorstep, calling Sheba a pervert and, in a fit of anger, she pulls out handfuls of Sheba’s hair. News reporters camp out in front of the house and harass the family. The scandal is out and is reported in all of the newspapers. Later that day, Barbara is also called into Pabblem’s office and accused of knowing about the illicit affair. Although she denies it, the headmaster forces her to retire.
Sheba is cast out of her home by her husband, Richard, and does not have anywhere to live. She thinks she can rely on Barbara to help her. But in Chapter 16, Sheba uncovers Barbara’s manuscript and reads it. She accuses Barbara of writing lies about her. Sheba realizes that it is Barbara who has betrayed her. Outraged, Sheba screams at Barbara. But later, Sheba becomes despondent. Since Barbara is the only friend Sheba has, she allows Barbara to nurse her. In the end, Barbara secures a place for them to live together, and she finally has what she wanted: the total care and control of Sheba.