The Square Root of Wonderful

by Carson McCullers

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The play is presented in three acts over the course of about ten days in May, at a small apple farm in New York state, twenty miles from New York City.

Act 1
Act 1 begins after midnight in the living room. Mollie Lovejoy awakens and comforts her thirteenyear- old son, Paris, who has been having a nightmare in which his father, Phillip Lovejoy, is a burglar. Paris is sleeping on the couch because his grandmother, Mother Lovejoy, and his aunt, Loreena Lovejoy, also known as Sister, are visiting.

Mollie and John Tucker, an architect who is living at the house, have been in the kitchen talking and drinking tea. Mollie says that she will be ‘‘desolate’’ when John leaves. When Paris asks the architect, ‘‘Why do you keep your arms around my mother? Why do you look at her in that zany way?’’ John admits that he loves Mollie. Mollie has been divorced twice from Paris’s father.

Mollie has received a phone call from Phillip and is worried that he is going to show up at the house, having checked himself out of a sanatorium after attempting suicide. Paris brags that his father is a famous author and warns that he is going to tell Phillip about John. John is defiant, countering that he himself will tell Phillip that he loves Mollie. Mollie notes that Phillip’s most recent work, a play, opened and closed very quickly. Mollie and John reminisce about how they met ten days earlier, when she picked him up on the road as he was repairing his car. Mollie brought him back to the house and, to his surprise, offered him room and board. He had assumed that she was offering him sex.

Mollie tells John that one of the things she loves about him is that he is interested in her for her mind and not for her body. She recalls meeting Phillip at a peach festival in her hometown when she was fifteen. They immediately had sex, and the next day they were married. Even though she is no longer married to Phillip, she admits to John that he has always cast a sort of spell over her. Even when Phillip was verbally and physically abusive during their two marriages, ‘‘he had a lot of charm,’’ she says. They also talk about Sister and the disappointment the Lovejoy family feels about the fact that she was once a debutante but is now an old maid and a librarian.

Sister enters the room, and John leaves to fix a noisy garage door. Sister warns Mollie that Phillip is probably going to show up at the house soon and ask her to marry him for the third time. Mollie says she does not want to marry him again but expresses concern that she will be swayed by Phillip’s charm. Answering Mollie’s question as to whether she has ever been in love, Sister admits to numerous loves in places around the world, but these are men and events that live only in her imagination.

Mother Lovejoy enters the room looking for milk of magnesia, disappointed that Sister has already told Mollie about Phillip. Sister and Mother Lovejoy leave the room just as John comes back from fixing the door. He and Mollie discuss Phillip, John’s numerous love affairs, and the possibility of their getting married.

After John goes to bed, Phillip appears holding a bouquet of flowers for Mollie. Phillip tries to get Mollie to remember what it was like when they were married. He adds that he knows his next book will be a success. He...

(This entire section contains 1692 words.)

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goes upstairs, expecting that Mollie will follow him. As Paris walks in, Mollie asks him, ‘‘My child, if your mother told you she is in love with two people, what would you think?’’ From upstairs, Phillip calls for Mollie as the curtain falls.

Act 2
The second act opens the next afternoon. Paris is talking to a school friend, Hattie, about a test they just took. The sounds of his father’s typewriter come from the next room. Hattie admits that she is afraid of Phillip because he is ‘‘crazy.’’ They briefly talk about when they took their clothes off and looked at each other, but Hattie leaves abruptly when Phillip enters the room.

Phillip and Paris talk about their lives as father and son. Paris accuses his father of never remembering his age and never giving appropriate gifts. They have different recollections of their lives together on their apple farm: Phillip thinks only of how he wanted to buy a cow and milk it, work the land, and eat great country breakfasts, while Paris remembers that his father never liked milk, especially when compared with whisky, paid him to tend to the garden, and typically only had black coffee for breakfast.

Paris leaves the room as Mollie comes in with groceries, followed by Mother Lovejoy and Sister. The women chatter about a variety of topics. Mother Lovejoy says that Mollie is looking much more healthy and vibrant and attributes this to ‘‘S-E-X.’’ Mother Lovejoy also concludes that the absence of sex is why Sister does not appear as beautiful as Mollie.

John enters the room, and Mother Lovejoy asks him if he is a ‘‘professional man,’’ thinking that Sister may appeal to him and instructs Mollie to leave the two of them alone. Sister tells John that she has been searching for ‘‘the right man.’’ After Sister leaves, Mollie enters the room. John expresses his love to Mollie, but she tells him that Phillip is back home.

Paris enters with the blueprints of a house John intends to build. The three of them talk about what features might be included in the house. Paris tells John about having to beat up a fellow student who made fun of his name, and John admits to having had his feelings hurt by a girl who teased him about the acne he had when he was young. John talks about ‘‘the square root of sin. . . . The sin of hurting people’s feelings. . . . It’s the same as murder.’’ Paris and John agree that they have enjoyed their ‘‘man-to-man talk.’’

Paris leaves just as his father enters the room. Phillip is obviously angry about John and Mollie’s growing closeness and comments that everything at the farm is his, including ‘‘my wife.’’ Phillip quizzes the couple on whether they have slept together, to which Mollie answers, ‘‘No.’’ He goes on talking about how good the sex was between him and Mollie. Phillip leaves, looking for applejack to drink.

Various characters enter and leave the scene, discussing topics from chess playing to Mother Lovejoy’s insistence that she always knew that Phillip would be a ‘‘great genius.’’ Eventually, Phillip and John are left alone; Phillip lets drop that Mollie slept with him the previous night. When Mollie returns, John questions her about this, and she admits it, begging forgiveness and blaming her weakness. He asks her, ‘‘When will you be strong enough to love the strong?’’

Phillip and his mother are left in the room, and they have a discussion that degenerates into an argument. She storms out. Mollie comes back and tells Phillip that she is leaving him for John. Phillip is disdainful of John but begins to plead with Mollie. He claims that ‘‘without you I will die,’’ but Mollie remains adamant that she is leaving with John. Phillip grabs her arm, and Mollie picks up a knife. He continues begging Mollie to stay with him, even going so far as to suggest, ‘‘You can be in love with him, that’s all right, but stay in love with me! Let me stay and I will write again.’’ Mollie refuses, and they continue arguing. Phillip picks up the grandfather clock as it chimes the hour and smashes it. The chiming continues, frightening both of them.

Act 3, Scene 1
Early the next morning, Philip awakens Paris, suggesting that they both leave the house. Phillip tells his son, ‘‘I need you.’’ When Paris asks his father where he is going, Phillip answers, ‘‘To zones and latitudes you never imagined.’’ Phillip tells Paris a Bible story involving talents, an ancient form of money, but Paris keeps confusing it with the word used to denote a particular ability. Paris is frightened of the ‘‘creepy’’ way Phillip is behaving. He remembers he has planned to go fishing that day, so he tells his father he will go with him ‘‘some other time.’’ Phillip leaves in his car just as Mollie comes down to check on Paris.

Act 3, Scene 2
A week has passed. From Paris and Hattie’s conversation, it is apparent that Phillip is dead, having driven his car into a nearby pond. Paris refuses to believe that his father’s actions were deliberate. ‘‘It was a defective steering wheel,’’ he insists, noting that his father was a strong man and only weak people commit suicide. They leave the room as Mother Lovejoy and Sister enter with suitcases.

According to Sister, Mollie is going to get a job as a cosmetologist in New York City, but Mother Lovejoy remembers that Mollie made a woman bald the last time she worked as a cosmetologist. The two chatter about the limousine they have rented to get them to the train station for their trip back to Society City.

Mollie comes downstairs as the limousine arrives. Mollie tells John that she is responsible for Phillip’s death. ‘‘Because I loved you, Phillip died,’’ she claims. She wonders aloud why she could not have helped Phillip, but John assures her she did enough for Phillip during his life.

Paris enters, and John tells him that he is planning to marry Mollie and build the house he told Paris about. Paris responds that when John was describing the house, ‘‘it sounded wonderful; the square root of it, in fact.’’ After he leaves, Mollie asks John what Paris meant by the ‘‘square root of wonderful,’’ and John responds, ‘‘You.’’ Mollie is confused, because, as she notes, ‘‘love multiplies.’’ She ends the scene and the play talking about how, when she loves, everything is multiplied.