Prep Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-5


Chapter Four, which takes place over the first semester of Lee's sophomore year at Ault, intertwines two main threads: Lee's new identity as the school's volunteer hairdresser, and her relationship with her new English teacher, Ms. Moray. These two threads are essentially separate plots until the end of the book, when Sittenfeld brings them together into a single story. The chapter opens on the first day in Ms. Moray's class. Just before the teacher, a very young intern, arrives, Lee kills a bee with her hands and finds it smeared on her palms. She immediately asks the teacher for permission to wash her hands, and panics when she is told no, since she is afraid that her classmates will see her messy hands. This minor conflict devolves further, leading to a standoff between Lee—who prefers not to draw attention to herself—and the young, earnest teacher. Lee is dismayed to realize that she has been mistaken for a troublemaker or contrarian, when she puts so much effort into seeming invisible. Ms. Moray even seems to take her student's behavior personally, refusing to let her share in class.

Ms. Moray, though, eventually makes herself unpopular with the students, in part because she so clearly wants to be considered cool or impactful by the class. For one thing, she frequently jokes about boarding-school culture in a way that is intended to sound self-aware, but quickly establishes her as an outsider. Lee does not like Ms. Moray, but she does relate to her somewhat. The two are both Midwesterners and are clearly outsiders. Ms. Moray, whose discomfort becomes more apparent as the chapter continues, even tries to establish a rapport with Lee based on their similar backgrounds, though Lee is resistant. Shortly after the bee incident, Lee refuses to read a paper out loud in class. Her reasons are unstated and complex. For one thing, Lee is shy and feels even more unwilling to draw attention to herself after her early conflict with the teacher. For another, the essay's topic is to describe a place where the writer goes to "reflect on life," and this topic in particular reveals the class divides between Lee and her classmates. While their essays describe large suburban homes or family boats, Lee's is about her father's mattress store. Ms. Moray, though, is impatient when Lee refuses to read. She asks Lee to stay after class and read the essay aloud. Lee is horrified when Ms. Moray winks at her and describes herself as a "fellow midwesterner." She has been at Ault long enough to realize that Ms. Moray's attempt at bonding with her comes from movie cliches about boarding school, and feels embarrassed on behalf of Ms. Moray.

While this incident causes the relationship between Lee and her roommate to deteriorate further, the class as a whole starts to turn on Ms. Moray somewhat later. Assigned to act out scenes from Uncle Tom's Cabin, one group—comprised of Aspeth Montgomery, Darden Pittard, and Lee's old roommate Dede—chooses to portray characters from the novel as if they are pimps and prostitutes. Ms. Moray is enraged and cuts off the performance before giving the class a passionate lecture about its racist and sexist undertones. In response, Aspeth points out that her teammate Darden is, in fact, black—breaking an implicit rule not to discuss race at Ault. Ms. Moray, though, responds that the students are merely displaying self-hating behavior. Lee sees that her teacher's earnestness and passionate behavior—as well as her somewhat self-aggrandizing desire to inspire—will only make her unpopular with the class. As a matter of fact, while Ms. Moray soon tries to return to a friendly relationship with her students, the students feel less friendly towards her. Dede and Aspeth even pass notes criticizing her clothes and makeup, and include Lee in this note-passing. Uncomfortable with the idea of the note, but unwilling to turn down this invitation from more popular students, Lee adds her own mockery of the teacher's accessories to the note. Several weeks later, Ms. Moray instructs the class to write about a topic they feel strongly about. Unable to think of any strong opinions she holds, Lee chooses to talk about the issue of school prayer. In class, Ms. Moray asks students to read their papers out loud. Lee is ready to read, but Ms. Moray tells her that she is not allowed to. Lee cannot think of a reason for this, but Ms. Moray once again keeps her after class. Ms. Moray points to some additional notes on Lee's paper: Lee has noted that she does not care deeply about her topic, but has chosen it simply to complete the assignment. Ms. Moray is enraged and urges her student to discover strong beliefs and passions, and to stand up for those beliefs. Lee, once again, discerns that her teacher is trying to act out certain cliches and ideals, even trying to live up to the expectation that teachers should change students' lives irrevocably. Feeling tired, Lee humors her teacher unenthusiastically until she is dismissed.

Concurrently with these events, Lee is developing a reputation at school for cutting hair. This begins completely by chance, when Lee has skipped a school dance to spend a night alone in the dorm common room. A boy named Tullis Haskell arrives and, finding nobody but Lee in the dorm, asks her to cut his hair. Lee has no idea how to do so, but agrees, in part because she has a small crush on Tullis based on his performance in a school talent show. While cutting Tullis's hair, Lee is thrilled to be close to a boy she finds attractive, but ends up experiencing an even deeper feeling of protectiveness and closeness with him. In fact, cutting his hair gives Lee a feeling of peace that she rarely feels at school. Since Tullis was well-known for his ponytail, his haircut soon becomes a topic of gossip and admiration. Other students begin asking Lee for haircuts. She does not charge her classmates to cut their hair, partly because she does not want to draw attention to her less-wealthy background, but largely because she actually enjoys cutting hair. She finds that it makes her feel competent, which happens rarely at Ault. One day, her best friend and roommate Martha tries to sneak away to get a professional haircut in town. When Lee confronts her, Martha gently explains that she does not approve of her friend's hobby. She believes that Lee cuts hair as a way to feel close to her classmates without asking anything of them in return, and that Lee deserves more reciprocal relationships. Lee is not upset by this, but also does not stop cutting hair. She believes that Martha views her in an unrealistically favorable light, and that others are unlikely to feel the same way. In fact, when Aspeth Montgomery asks her for a haircut after English class one day, Lee agrees.

Lee goes to Aspeth's room to meet her for her haircut, and is intimidated by Aspeth's effortlessness: her room is decorated with the collage of photos that most Ault students have, and Aspeth opens the door in her underwear before pulling on a pair of dirty jeans. It seems evident that she does not care at all what Lee thinks of her, which, paradoxically, makes Lee feel more impressed. Aspeth announces that Cross Sugarman will be joining them for the haircut. Lee has had an enormous crush on Cross since their day in the mall last spring, though they have not spoken at all. At first, cutting Aspeth's hair in a dorm common room while Cross flirts with Aspeth, Lee feels impressed and excluded by them. They seem effortless, bold, and exciting, while she feels small and quiet in comparison. Soon, though, she starts to realize that their conversations are at least as mundane as her own. She even feels somewhat resentful of Cross for his treatment of her. Meanwhile, the conversation turns to Ms. Moray. Aspeth tells Lee that Ms. Moray was not the school's first choice of an intern, but that she was hired suddenly when the original hiree was unable to take the post. Lee experiences a feeling of recognition, imagining her teacher driving from Iowa to Ault along the same route that she herself takes. After the haircut, Lee asks Aspeth and Cross to help her clean—something she rarely does—but they are reluctant to do so. At this moment, Lee decides that she is finished cutting hair. However, her plan is disrupted when Ms. Moray herself arrives in her dorm room one night with a proposal: if Lee will give her a haircut, she will replace the F on Lee's recent paper with an A. Knowing that she cannot refuse a teacher, Lee cuts Ms. Moray's hair. From the future, Lee the narrator reflects on what she has since realized about Mrs. Moray: that she was alone, at a tenuous point in her life, and trying very hard to succeed as a teacher. She muses that Ms. Moray has not impacted her the way that good teachers are meant to, but that she does "haunt" her.

The next chapter takes place a full year later. Lee's life hasn't changed much in measurable ways, but the very fact that she is a junior, halfway through her Ault career, means that she has become more resigned and comfortable with her limited school life. The chapter opens with a school dinner in which Lee shares a table with a few fringe characters: among them are Sin-Jun, two best friends named Rufina and Maria, and a boy named Nick Chafee. The group talks about parents weekend, which is upcoming. Maria and Rufina's parents will not be attending, but Lee's will. Lee recalls being invited to dinner last parents' weekend with Sin-Jun's family. Most of the other parents were clearly wealthy and even seemed to know one another. At the end of dinner, Nick invites the others to listen to music with him. Lee declines, suspecting that he does not really want her there. She reflects from the future on some of her old ideas about socializing—that one should never join any gathering unless invited enthusiastically, and that any good interaction with someone should be followed by avoiding that person so as not to tarnish the good memory. Lee also gets the impression that he is flirting with Rufina—an odd occurrence, since Rufina is one of the only Latina girls in the grade and therefore considered peripheral to the dating scene. She remembers a bus ride with Rufina their freshman year, in which she caught Rufina crying. Rufina confessed to worrying that life would "always be like this." Now, though, Lee wonders if she's truly happy at Ault. Leaving dinner, Lee thinks about how it might be strange to see her parents. She's a different person at home, more likely to act silly and do things like win a pie-eating contest, as she did once in sixth grade. Here at Ault, though she often feels like an outsider, she knows that she is very much an insider compared to her family.

The next morning she goes to meet her parents as they drive into the campus. Their drive from Indiana is extremely long, and most parents from far-flung states fly in for their visits. Lee notes that she gets letters from her mother fairly regularly but talks to her father less, though they are close, and she feels less certain of how he will react to her school. Once her parents drive onto campus, Lee feels overwhelmed. Their old car and fast-food leftovers, so different from the expensive purchases of other Ault families, feel out-of-place. Even more than that, though, Lee is struck by the emotional resonance her parents bring with them. Each of their possessions carries its own memories for her, making her feel far more than she usually does at school. Lee guides her parents through campus, adjusting her instructions to avoid other students seeing their car. Conflict bubbles under the surface when the group enters the dining hall to use the bathroom. Lee is nervous about leaving her father alone, and she feels irritated with her mother's banal questions when the two chat in adjacent toilet stalls. After, Lee's father makes a joke about her catching "WASP" germs, and Lee is quietly surprised that he even knows what "WASP" means. After, she gets increasingly frustrated with her parents, mostly because they react to the grandeur of the dining hall with such wonder and excitement when other people's parents seem to take it for granted. They stop to stare at a series of plaques inscribed with the name of past school prefects, and Lee scornfully tells them that there is no use, since they won't know any of the names. This, though, isn't true—the list contains the names of several people who would later become famous. Lee then reveals that one of her classmates is the daughter of a senator, which is exciting to her inquisitive father. Lee hurries them along to tour the school chapel, and here things grow easier. Lee and her father tease her mother, and, with everyone settling into their respective roles and joking together, Lee feels like the boisterous version of herself she typically is back home. In fact, she thinks about how strange it is that her classmates know her as prudish and prim, when, at home, she's used to being part of a family far blunter and more vulgar than most of her school friends'. Leaving the chapel, they run into a senior named Nancy Daley with her parents. Lee knows all about Nancy but they have never spoken, and though this is typical at Ault, the pretense seems suddenly strange with her parents present. She introduces them to Nancy, but is anxious while the two sets of parents make small talk, and knows she will avoid acknowledging Nancy in the future.

While her parents ask after Martha's family, wondering when they can meet, Lee muses that "easterners" are immune to the social niceties her family values so much. She recalls a conversation with her mother over a break in which they discussed this cultural difference, and remembers feeling proud for talking about such a mature topic with her mother. They reach Lee's dorm room, the door of which is decorated with a picture of Lee and Martha at Martha's family home. Lee's mother asks her about the bathing suit she's wearing in the picture, and Lee jokingly asks her mother whether she has any more questions, causing her mother to look hurt. Again, though, temporary awkwardness is glossed over, this time because of Martha's easygoing attitude. In their shared room, Martha chats easily with Lee's parents and gets along especially with her father. This makes Lee even more anxious—if Martha likes her parents, then surely she'll be disappointed later, or else she merely likes them because they are a curiosity on the East Coast. After Martha leaves, though, the situation again devolves, this time because Lee's father makes fun of one of the magazines on her desk. Feeling sensitive, she reacts strongly, leaving her mother to act as peacemaker. Their fight begins to escalate, but Lee purposely deescalates it so as not to draw attention to her family at a schoolwide reception. Seeing Cross Sugarman afar with his own parents, Lee thinks about how odd it is that, in spite of their differences, she now feels a certain similarity to him: their shared identity as Ault students becomes more important with non-students present. Lee's father then asks her where the supposed senator is, and, upon seeing him, Lee points him out as a gesture of reconciliation. She is embarrassed and furious, though, when her father actually approaches the senator and starts speaking to him. He is not receptive to her criticism, pointing out that most politicians enjoy meeting people. Lee calls her father "insane," but wonders, in the future, whether this accusation was simply easier than admitting that he was a sane but flawed man. Yet again, they recover from their fight by joining up to gently tease Lee's mother, a common technique they use to show forgiveness. That afternoon, Lee has a school soccer game. She loses, but on the sidelines, Lee chats with Maria, one of the girls who sat at her table the night before. She impulsively invites Maria to dinner with her family, and Maria says yes, asking if she can bring her roommate Rufina.

Lee accompanies her parents to their motel—most parents stay in an expensive Sheraton—and returns to school to change and pick up Maria and Rufina. In her room, she finds a note from Martha asking when their families can meet, but she throws it away. Maria and Rufina are both dressed up, evidently expecting that Lee's family will be going to a fancy restaurant called the Red Barn Inn, where most parents take their children when they visit. Lee's parents, though, take the girls to a Chinese restaurant instead. In the car, Rufina casually tells Lee's parents that she dislikes Ault because it is "snobby." Lee is struck by her ability to complain without worrying about sounding bitter or ungrateful, and tells us that both Maria and Rufina will go on to Ivy League colleges—the only thing that Lee herself cared about much at the time anyway. In fact, Maria and Ruina get along with her parents, but Lee spends the car ride to the restaurant and most of dinner worried that something will go wrong. And something does, in fact, go wrong. Rufina asks Lee whether her parents can drop her at the Sheraton to meet Nick Chafee, since she assumes that, like most Ault families, the Fioras will be staying at the expensive hotel. Rather than simply explaining that her parents are staying elsewhere, Lee panics—partly because she is so distracted by the clear evidence that Nick and Rufina are involved—and instructs her father to drive out of his way to the Sheraton and drop Rufina off. Her father is reluctant and is indignant at being asked to drop Rufina in a boy's hotel room. Rufina, for her part, remains in the car rather than leave and diffuse the tension. Partly on his wife's urging, he eventually drops Rufina off. However, before dropping Lee back in her dorm, he informs her that he will be skipping the rest of the weekend's events and will not see her until Christmas. Both Lee and Mrs. Fiora are surprised and upset, but he explains that Lee has acted unkindly to him all weekend, and that she seems to have absorbed more of Ault's entitled culture than he ever imagined. Lee responds by telling her dad that he has embarrassed her all weekend. Suddenly, her father slaps her. Lee calls him an "asshole," and he calls her an "ungrateful little bitch," their final exchange before her parents drive away.

The next morning, Lee's mother calls her. Sobbing, she tells Lee that they are already driving home, as Mr. Fiora wanted to do. Lee begs her mother to come back, but she explains that they are on the road. Later, Lee says, her family jokingly refers to parents' weekend as the "weekend from hell." She reconciles with her father; he leaves her voice messages while she is away at college and calls her nearly every day as she gets older. However, she foreshadows, she will never return home, maybe because Ault prepared her for a lifetime away from her family. She remembers, though, spotting an Ault nametag in her brother Tim's room years later, inscribed with her name. She realizes that her father picked up the nametag at a parents' weekend event and wonders whether he carried it in his pocket, all through the long drive from Massachusetts to South Bend.


Sittenfeld cleverly builds this chapter along two separate plotlines, waiting until the end of the section to combine them. In this way, she shows us Lee in two very different contexts. Giving haircuts, Lee is more competent, secure, and recognized than she ever has been at Ault. Though she ultimately phases out of this hobby, it is an arena in which she has some degree of control, and in which her decisions are considered authoritative. Meanwhile, Ms. Moray's class makes Lee feel more conspicuous, disliked, and uncertain than any other context at school. While she develops a feeling of groundedness in one arena, she has never felt more ungrounded in the other. Ultimately, though, these two arenas meld into one when Ms. Moray asks for a haircut. This is, in a way, inevitable. Because of the way in which boarding school is structured, Lee has no ability to separate her academic, social, and personal lives. Therefore, no conflict can be self-contained. This can offer her a feeling of comfort, in some capacity, since she is able to have authority over her teacher while cutting her hair. However, it also offers very little privacy.

Ms. Moray makes use of this lack of privacy by approaching Lee in her dorm room to solve a classroom conflict. Like much of what this teacher does, this particular decision will feel somewhat confusing or alienating for the reader, as it does for Lee. Ms. Moray's method of solving problems with Lee is creative and clearly comes from a place of caring and devotion. On the other hand, as Lee immediately notices, Ms. Moray's teaching methods seem largely based on cultural cliches about what makes a person a good teacher, drawn from movies and other popular portrayals of high school. This means that she tends to employ showy or unusual solutions without thinking them through thoroughly—for instance, seeking out Lee in her dorm for a haircut and thereby taking advantage of Lee's unhealthy haircut habit. She also publicly scolds the only black student in Lee's class for performing a racist skit. Here, too, the reader will likely feel both sympathetic and alarmed. While the skit Sittenfeld describes is indeed racist and offensive, Moray's response puts Darden Pittard in the unpleasant position of having to personally reassure his classmates that they have not been guilty of racism. Generally, Moray's attempts to share positive values with classes end up causing harm to individual students. Sittenfeld's characterization of Ms. Moray is sophisticated—she inverts many pop culture stereotypes of passionate, talented teachers, but, interestingly, she herself is also aware of these cliches and acts in response to them.

Lee's roommate Martha has a blunt, gentle wisdom, and readers know to pay attention when she speaks. Much of the time, her dialogue offers keys to understanding the text, especially when she talks about Lee. In this section, she more or less correctly diagnoses her friend's reasons for giving free haircuts: Lee craves physical and social intimacy with her classmates, but is afraid to seek this intimacy in a way that puts her at risk of judgment or makes her feel unwanted. In fact, as she ruminates in Chapter Five, Lee has a tendency to avoid social interactions unless she feels completely sure that the other party is excited to have her there. In fact, she recalls from the future, she even avoids re-encountering people with whom she has had a positive interaction for fear of tarnishing that moment of positivity. Cutting hair offers no opportunity for others to resent her presence, though, since she does so purely as a favor for her classmates, and even declines to charge them for her services. Ironically, by cutting Aspeth's hair, Lee discovers that Martha is right—providing a free service to other students makes them more likely to take Lee for granted, not less. Even though Lee believes that Martha is partial, and that her assertion of Lee's own worth is unfounded, Martha's love and support allow Lee to feel less reliant on the superficial closeness she gains from cutting hair. However, one thing that Martha is not quite able to understand—no matter how kind or intelligent she is—is the way that it feels to be a scholarship student at Ault. Lee tends to confront problems by turning inward, assuming that other people will think the worst of her, and so she tends to push Martha away in some of her most vulnerable moments. For instance, when her parents come to visit, Lee throws away a note from Martha even while seeking the companionship of Rufina and Maria. She does this in large part because she thinks that Martha, whose father attended Ault and who is from a wealthy Vermont family, will not understand her working-class parents. While Lee does feel relief when she speaks to other scholarship students, or to nonwhite students who experience an exclusion similar to her own, she also suffers when she assumes that Martha cannot grow to understand her background.

Up until the novel's fourth chapter, Sittenfeld deliberately leaves Lee's home life somewhat mysterious. The reader gets snatches of information, mostly for necessary exposition, but never meets one of Lee's family members, for instance, or hears much extraneous information about her life in Indiana. Instead, Lee's home is described and evoked with absence. Her feelings of discomfort, longing, and loneliness at school become a reminder of a place where she's more comfortable and more loved. During Chapter Four, though, Lee starts to drop more information about her old life, and to do so more casually, as the memories and thoughts come into her mind. For instance, Lee recounts an anecdote about making cookies at home, and describes the route she and her father drove to Ault while she imagines Ms. Moray's drive from Iowa. Far from revealing homesickness, these nonchalantly shared memories suggest that Lee is feeling more at home during school. She is able to talk about home without feeling overwhelmed and to casually integrate descriptions of South Bend into her thought processes. After all, by the start of Chapter Four, Lee has been at Ault for a year. She is not popular, but she understands the rules and language of the place. For instance, her first thought upon seeing Ms. Moray is that the teacher looks "like someone who'd played field hockey at Dartmouth." The invocation of an Ivy League school as a natural point of comparison is new for Lee: she has clearly become fluent in the language of wealth and prestige, even if she isn't a native speaker. It's precisely for this reason that she is able to think about home without feeling that it threatens her identity as an Ault student. While memories of home no longer pose a threat to this identity, visitors from home do. In other words, while Lee feels practiced and confident separating these important parts of her lives, she doesn't trust others to aid her in this compartmentalization. This is one reason that she feels so irritated and touched by Ms. Moray, whose background is similar to her own. And, in some ways, this reaction foreshadows the explosive anxiety she will feel when her own parents visit Ault. After all, by the time the events of Chapter Five transpire, Lee has spent two years trying to keep her family life and her school life from touching so that she can survive in both. The arrival of her parents at Ault poses the greatest hazard to this separation thus far.

As a matter of fact, Lee's own anxiety is actually a much greater problem for her than anything her parents do. Undoubtedly, her parents stand out somewhat. They dress a bit differently than the other families present, drive a less expensive car, and are more interested in making small talk. While many Ault students value wealth disproportionately, many—like Maria and Rufina—do not, and a great deal more are simply preoccupied with their own families at parents' weekend. Lee's fear of standing out causes her to freeze up and lash out at her parents, just as she gives Martha the cold shoulder out of panic. Therefore, Lee's furious reaction to her father greeting the senator draws more attention to them both than does his original action. Later, Lee is so determined to avoid conflict that she pushes her parents to drive Rufina to the Sheraton, even when the argument becomes far more stressful than the burden of refusing Rufina. Furthermore, Lee's anxiety causes her to act so cruelly towards her parents that they both feel hurt. This is in itself a heartbreaking turn of events for her, but it also directly backfires: when another student sees Mr. Fiora slap Lee, even more attention is drawn to her and her family. Ironically, then, the pressure that Lee puts on herself and her family to avoid drawing attention ends up resulting in far more attention than they would have otherwise attracted. On the one hand, then, it seems that Lee will be happier if she can simply accept her parents as they are and stop trying to hide her past from her classmates. On the other hand, Sittenfeld hints that the choice is not so simple. After all, she foreshadows, Lee will grow more comfortable with herself but will never return home—her old and new lives can't be fully reconciled.