Chapters 1–3 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858

Chapter 1

Helga Crane, a twenty-two-year-old teacher at Naxos, a southern boarding school for black students, sits in her private room, which she has elegantly decorated with silks, carpets, and other ornamentations reflective of her “rare and intensely intensely personal taste.” The room is dark save for the light from one reading lamp, and Helga sits, still and thoughtful, in the quiet. 

Her thoughts center on an event that occurred earlier that day: a white preacher visited the school and spoke to the students and faculty about the “fineness” of their institution, for Naxos is a place where “Negroes knew what was expected of them” and “knew enough to stay in their places.” As Helga relives the preacher’s remarks, she feels anger and resentment, which build into a desire to leave her position at the school. Hours pass, and Helga sits in stillness until she abruptly stands and turns on the overhead light. Moving to the desk, Helga flings the books and papers on it in the direction of the wastebasket, creating a mess.

Naxos is not a school, Helga thinks; rather, it is a machine that stamps out creativity and individualism and ruthlessly molds its subjects according to “the white man’s pattern.” When she first arrived at Naxos two years prior, she was filled with idealism and big dreams, but now decides “she was a failure here.” In thinking about the many details that she will need to attend to before she leaves, two in particular rise to the surface: first, her need for money to buy a train ticket back to Chicago; and second, her engagement to James Vayle, a fellow teacher. Helga has only one relative who cares for her, her uncle Peter, though even he believes that “because of her Negro blood she would never amount to anything.” Still, Helga knows she can ask Uncle Peter for a loan. Regarding James Vayle, Helga anticipates that his family will be glad to hear of the broken engagement, for they had never liked her because her “lack of family disconcerted them.” The Vayles are “people of consequence” in Atlanta, and Helga’s dearth of notable ancestry prevents her from truly belonging in their social stratum. Knowing that James, too, senses Helga’s outsiderness and is bothered by it, Helga remains firm in her conviction to leave Naxos. She retires for the night. 

Chapter 2

In the morning, Helga reviews her thinking from the night before and feels “no wish to change her resolution.” As she lies in bed, she hears the ringing of the bell and the scurrying of students getting ready for breakfast. She looks down from her window to the quadrangle below and watches the neatly militant lines of students marching into breakfast. After the meal, Margaret Creighton, a teacher in the English department worried by Helga’s absence at breakfast, visits Helga in her room. When Helga tells Margaret that she’s leaving Naxos, Margaret worries that Helga will make it hard for herself to get another teaching job because she’ll have ruined the chance to get a good reference from Naxos. Helga, “no longer concerned with what anyone in Naxos might think of her,” is already making plans for her departure. She is concerned only about packing and purchasing a train ticket. 

Chapter 3

As Helga walks across the campus to meet with Dr. Anderson, the principal, she reflects that the people at Naxos are prisoners and aren’t even conscious of it. Entering the administration building, Helga feels self-conscious as the eyes of “stenographers, book-keepers, [and] clerks” follow her. As she takes a seat, she judges what the other women are wearing. The dean of women has said that “bright colors are vulgar,” and thus the workers are wearing drab blues, browns, and blacks. Helga, however, feels “loyalty to the inherent racial need for gorgeousness” and loves clothes in sensuous fabrics and colors. Her wardrobe is another element of her identity that sets her apart from her colleagues at Naxos.

After being ushered into Dr. Anderson’s office, Helga straightforwardly tells the principal that she wants to leave. When Dr. Anderson asks what she doesn’t like about Naxos, Helga lays bare her complaints: “I hate hypocrisy. I hate cruelty to students, and to teachers who can’t fight back. I hate backbiting, and sneaking, and petty jealousy.” She adds that she feels as if Naxos suppresses individuality and beauty. In response, Dr. Anderson speaks about his plans and ideals for the school, urging Helga to stay and saying that people like her, with her values and hopes, are badly needed in the community. His words are persuasive, and Helga finds herself stirring with the desire not only to stay at Naxos but even to come back to teach next year.

Dr. Anderson then speaks two sentences that turn Helga completely against him: “You’re a lady. You have dignity and breeding,” he says. Anger overcomes Helga, and she reveals her family background to him: “My father was a gambler who deserted my mother, a white immigrant.” Reiterating her resolve to leave, Helga then ends the conversation and exits the office.

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Chapters 4–7 Summary