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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311

The nameless narrator encounters two former acquaintances, Gilbert Long and Grace Brissenden, both of whom are also going to the party at Newmarch, and both of whom appear considerably changed to the narrator. Long, who previously struck the narrator as a handsome clod, seems suddenly to have become clever, and...

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The nameless narrator encounters two former acquaintances, Gilbert Long and Grace Brissenden, both of whom are also going to the party at Newmarch, and both of whom appear considerably changed to the narrator. Long, who previously struck the narrator as a handsome clod, seems suddenly to have become clever, and Mrs. Brissenden, who is supposedly at least forty, seems to have grown younger or at least not to have aged. In conversation with Mrs. Briss, as she is called, the narrator receives the idea for what is to become his theory, that Long’s intellectual improvement is the result of his having entered into a relationship with a clever woman, identified by Mrs. Briss as Lady John, another guest at Newmarch. Lady John is coming on a later train with Guy Brissenden, her screen, as that gentleman’s wife intimates, for her affair with Long.

Arriving at the party, the narrator fails, just as he initially failed to recognize Mrs. Briss, to recognize Guy, who, although only in his late twenties, looks older now than his wife. Guy appears, in fact, “quite sixty.” This discovery completes the narrator’s theory that as one party to a relationship gains, either physically or intellectually, the other loses, is drained by the “sacrificer” until quite depleted. The narrator communicates this theory to Ford Obert, who assumes Mrs. Briss to be considerably younger than her husband.

The narrator attempts to corroborate his theory. His discovery that Lady John is as witty and superficial as ever leads him to reject her, in a conversation with Mrs. Briss, as Long’s “victim,” for the partner to such a relationship will of necessity lack her former attributes. At this juncture, the two conspirators discovers in colloquy two figures who prove to be Guy and May Server, the latter presumably using Guy as a screen, just as Lady John was formerly said to have done. Mrs. Briss happily proves to be the very woman for whom they are looking to serve as the replacement for the now unacceptable Lady John. Mrs. Server is “all over the place,” flitting from man to man in an attempt to mask the loss of her faculties, or so Mrs. Briss confides to the narrator in their next interview. Her description tallies remarkably with that given the narrator by Obert, who sees Mrs. Server greatly changed from the self-possessed woman she was when she sat for him to have her portrait painted. By this time, the narrator, on the grounds of both Mrs. Briss’s and Obert’s testimony and of an encounter with Mrs. Server herself, comes around to accepting Mrs. Briss’s account, but his tender feeling for Mrs. Server, his sense that he and his collaborator are poking into a matter that is none of their business, and perhaps also his pique that Mrs. Briss is beating him at his own game, prevents him from acknowledging to her fully the degree of conviction to which she brings him.

The amount of data with which the narrator is confronted becomes prodigious, but the theory expands to accommodate all of it: Lady John makes up to Guy to conceal the fact that she is in love with Long; Mrs. Server’s single appearance with Long (the point is actually made by Mrs. Briss) is the exception that proves the rule; Mrs. Server’s avoidance of the narrator, out of all the men at the party, indicates her awareness that he is on to her predicament. (It never strikes him that she could find his inquisitiveness obnoxious.) Mrs. Server’s frequent juxtaposition with Guy is less Mrs. Briss’s postulated screen than the mutual tacit commiseration of the two victims, each conscious of the other’s depletion. (The narrator’s hypothesis is that victims know of their condition while victimizers do not.) A conversation with Guy, who tells the narrator that Mrs. Server has nothing to say and who confesses a certain terror of and yet fascination with her, confirms the narrator’s view of their condition and mutual relation—although Guy’s confusion might as easily have been sincere, and Mrs. Server’s evidently morbid state could not be attributable to the loss of her three children. Guy, however, can be covering an actual affair that he is having with Mrs. Server. Next, the narrator himself engages in talk with Mrs. Server, hinting in a veiled manner at her relation with Guy and gleaning that she took comfort in his awareness of her plight and his tolerant sympathy. Mrs. Server’s participation in the dialogue was, however, so vague and so slight that in “truth” she gave evidence of everything or nothing. Lady John then confronts the narrator with the fact that his supersubtlety and his passion for reading meanings into everything put the rest of the company in great upset, and she chastises him for sending Guy off to Mrs. Server when it is perfectly obvious to everyone the loathing that she inspires in him. The narrator, in an elaborate subterfuge, attempts to convince Lady John that as long as Long is in love with her and he himself with Mrs. Server, she ought to relinquish Guy so that the narrator might at least have the pleasure of seeing the woman he loves, Mrs. Server, get the man she loves, Guy. Their conversation is halted when they see Mrs. Briss and Long deep in talk, a fact that leads the narrator to speculate that Lady John benightedly and jealously conceives a liaison between the two, whereas he, by dint of his “superior wisdom,” knows them now to come to a knowledge, and by the very agency of his inquiries, of their “bloated” or victimizing conditions, and to be joining together for mutual protection. As their talk ends, Mrs. Briss approaches him and briefly informs him that she wishes to speak to him later in the evening, after the other guests retire.

The narrator’s theory begins to crumble. First, Obert appears to inform him that Mrs. Server is no longer in her drained condition and that the man, whoever he is, is out of the question, since she gave him up. To top this blow, Mrs. Briss arrives to demolish what is left of the narrator’s theory. There is nothing in what he says, she informs him, and she speculates along his lines only while under his spell. Mrs. Server is not the woman because there is no woman. Long, as her conversation with him amply testifies, is as stupid as he ever has been. As a matter of fact, he and Lady John are lovers, a fact that squares perfectly with his theory because she is not drained (there being very little to drain) or he improved. Moreover, she has it from Guy that Lady John and Long are intimate. What the narrator thinks he sees is simply his insanity. Finally, to clinch her argument, to explain, in fact, her wriggling and self-contradiction throughout the course of the interview, Mrs. Server is not using Guy as a screen; she is—and this from Guy’s own lips—making love to him. In addition, Mrs. Server is sharply perceptive. At the narrator’s amazed gasp, Mrs. Briss asks if that is not the very thing he maintains. She then tells him he is crazy and bids him good night. The narrator can only wanly observe that she has the last word.

Clearly disinvited, he will have to leave. The facts toward which the narrator works, then, are finally unknowable. Whether Mrs. Briss is telling the truth at the end, lying in collusion with Long to protect their status, or attempting to shield the fact that she is actually carrying on an affair with Long, cannot be resolved. The theory, it seems, rests on the unstable base of the narrator’s ego.

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