Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838
Renée Néré muses as she applies makeup to her face in her dressing room at a French music hall. She looks into the mirror at her own reflection, and it begins to speak to her. Her image asks her why she is seated there, all alone. Renée waits to go onstage to perform and listens to the voice of her double in the mirror, all the while wondering who or what might appear at her dressing-room door to change her state of solitude. Renée wishes for something that will release her from the solitary life she has created for herself, but she also fears any change.
She performs her act and returns to her dressing room to find a note from Maxime Dufferein-Chautel, the marquis de Fontanges. The marquis expresses his admiration for her talents on the stage and inquires whether Renée has other talents. He invites her to dine with him that evening, but Renée refuses.
Alone again in her dressing room, she reviews her eight years of marriage and three years of separation from Adolphe Taillandy, a pastelist. He had lied to her and had been a womanizer. Renée had been a jealous and tormented young wife, and she turned to literature as an outlet. She has written four books that attained varying levels of success, but once she separated from Taillandy, she was shunned by their middle-class friends. That was when she took a ground-floor flat for herself in Paris and turned to the music hall to earn her living.
Meanwhile, Brague, another mime, has set up an evening performance by the two of them at a private home. Renée arrives at the residence of a wealthy Parisian to dance before an assembled audience, and she spies several of her former husband’s mistresses in the audience. Aware of the shock in their eyes, she dances before them unabashed but aware of the pain of her past. It is not she, Renée reflects, who has done any wrong.
The winter progresses, and one night Renée’s friend Hamond brings Maxime, uninvited, to dinner at Renée’s flat. She is not impressed with him as a suitor and laughs him off. When the show at the music hall closes, Renée wonders what she will do next. Maxime continues to visit Renée, which causes her to acknowledge her desire for companionship. When Maxime tells her that he loves her, she does not respond. She tells Hamond, however, that she will never love anyone again after the devastating experience of her marriage to a liar and a cheat.
Renée signs a contract to leave Paris for a forty-day tour of provincial theaters with Brague, and she happily tells Maxime and Hamond about her forthcoming tour. Maxime visits her at her apartment to ask her to stay in Paris, and while there, he approaches her and kisses her. Renée resists, but then she gives in to the kiss and experiences a sensual reawakening. This causes a conflict in her mind—she feels that to give in to sexual impulses means a return to the kind of humiliation she experienced with her unfaithful husband, a reenactment of the painful state of submission to a man.
She refuses to give herself to Maxime, as her unhappy past keeps her from trusting him or her own impulses. By the time she embarks on her tour, however, her love for Maxime has blossomed. They come to an understanding that they will live together as a couple when she returns; she will give herself to him fully. Renée leaves Paris in high spirits, looking forward to coming back to Maxime....
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She leaves him a love letter upon her departure in which she proclaims that she will return tired of solitude and ready to begin her life with him fully and completely.
While Renée is away from Paris, she and Maxime exchange passionate letters. Gradually, however, as she travels by train further away from Paris, into the regions of her childhood, during the following days and nights, doubts assail her and grow until a letter arrives for her in Avignon. Maxime, afraid of losing her, has sensed that Renée is drifting away from him emotionally during her extended tour of provincial France, so he has written to her with a proposal of marriage. Renée’s conflict increases. She reflects that marriage is a form of confinement, although it has its positive sides, while her vagabond existence, although lonely and hard, allows her to live as an independent soul.
As she embarks on the return leg of her trip, Renée begins to separate herself from Maxime psychologically. Once back in Paris, she furtively enters her apartment alone. In the early-morning light, she leaves a note for Maxime, telling him that she will not see him again. She returns to her life as the traveling artist, on her way to perform in a tour of South America.