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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

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The unnamed narrator, a French professor at a New England women’s college, runs into D., whom he has not seen for several years, and hears about the recent death of Cynthia Vane. Four years earlier, the narrator knew D. and Cynthia in the small town where he still teaches literature. He is surprised to find D., a former instructor at his school, revisiting the site of unpleasant memories. D.’s shame is an extramarital affair that he had conducted with Cynthia’s younger sister, Sybil, who was one of the narrator’s students.

Cynthia once summoned the narrator to Boston and begged him to make D. end his relationship with her sister and to have D. kicked out of the college if he refused to comply. When the narrator met with D., the latter told him that he had already decided to end the relationship; he was about to quit his teaching job and join his father’s firm in Albany, New York. The next day, Sybil seemed normal when she took her examination in the narrator’s French literature class. Later, however, when the narrator read her essay, he found it full “of a kind of desperate conscientiousness, with underscores, transposes, unnecessary footnotes, as if she were intent on rounding up things in the most respectable manner possible.” At its end it contained what appeared to be a suicide note:Cette examain est finie ainsi que ma vie. Adieu, jeunes filles! Please, Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than Life minus D.

Immediately after reading this note the narrator phoned Cynthia, who told him that Sybil was already dead, then rushed to see her. As Cynthia read Sybil’s note, the narrator pointed out its grammatical mistakes. Amused by her sister’s use of an exclamation mark, Cynthia was strangely pleased by its trivialities. She then took the narrator to Sybil’s room to show him two empty pill bottles and the bed from which her body was removed.

After Cynthia moved to New York a few months later, the narrator began seeing her regularly while visiting the city to do research in the public library. He disliked almost everything about her and wondered at the tastes of her three lovers, but he admired her paintings.

Fearing that Sybil’s spirit was displeased at the conspiracy to end her romance, Cynthia began sending mementos—such as a photograph of Sybil’s tomb—to D. She wanted to placate her dead sister because of her own belief in the spirit world. Cynthia felt herself especially susceptible to the recently dead. Although the highly rational narrator sneered at her fondness for spiritualism, he describes two of her séances at which the spirits of Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, and others appeared. He preferred these silly events to Cynthia’s awful house parties, at which she was always the youngest woman present. After an argument over his snobbery, they stopped seeing each other.

Despite his skepticism, the narrator senses Cynthia’s presence after her death when strange physical manifestations in his bedroom make him suspect her of staging a cheap poltergeist show.