The narrator opens with the idea that some people are born monsters. While some are monstrous physically, others are monstrous morally. Cathy Ames was a moral monster. Although she was born with an innocent face and retained a child's figure all her life, she learned at an early age that sexuality holds a magnetic power, which she used to manipulate others. She also learned to lie expertly, never getting caught. Since Cathy was an only child, her mother did not suspect her strangeness, even though her father judged her to be different.
One spring morning, Mrs. Ames heard a giggle in the carriage house at the back of the house. She went to the door and flung it open. Cathy lay on the ground tied up by the hands, her clothing bunched up around her waist. Two boys were kneeling over her. Cathy refused to talk about the incident. A doctor examined her and found nothing had been done to harm her, but he told Mrs. Ames something could have happened if she had not come upon them at the moment she did. Mrs. Ames got the town in an uproar over the incident, and the boys were severely whipped and sent to a house of correction. They swore their innocence, saying that they had not tied her hands, but no one believed them.
Mr. Ames was suspicious about Cathy always finding things, like purses and money; but he remained silent. When Cathy found a silver cross with red stones, her father advertised it in the Lost and Found of the newspaper, but no one ever claimed it.
Cathy was a pretty girl and a good student. She finished the eight grades of grammar school with a good record and expressed a desire to go to high school. Her parents were pleased by her choice, for they had few funds to provide Cathy with a dowry for marriage.
James Grew, the Latin teacher at Cathy's high school, had flunked out of divinity school; but he wanted to be readmitted. When he was not accepted, he became dejected and depressed and often wandered in the hills. He claimed he was ill so he would not have to teach. One night Grew came to see Mr. Ames, but he would not speak to him. He told the teacher to come and see him the next day at the tannery. When Mrs. Ames asked who was at the door, her husband lied and said it was some drunk.
The next morning, Grew's body was found in the church. He had shot himself in the head. Mrs. Ames quizzed her husband about the drunken man at the door and asked if it was perhaps Mr. Grew. When Mr. Ames insisted it was a stranger, Cathy smiled. She then told her mother that supposedly Mr. Grew had problems in Boston.
After her sixteenth birthday, Cathy changed so much that her mother felt like she was a stranger. One morning when her mother called her, she refused to get up and go to school. When her mother insisted that she get up, Cathy would not budge. Since she was reading Alice in Wonderland, Cathy told her mother she could get so small that her mother would not be able to see or find her. That night, Mr. Ames lectured Cathy, but he could tell his words were having no effect on her.
The next morning Cathy was not in her room, as expected. Mr. Ames checked all around town for her and found out from the railroad station manager that she had taken a train to Boston. He followed her to Boston, located her, and brought her back home the same night. Mrs. Ames was so upset with her daughter that she insisted that her husband beat Cathy. He obeyed, but when Cathy cried out and begged for him to stop, he lessened the severity of his blows. After the beating, Cathy seemed contrite. Mr. Ames decided that she needed more discipline.
After the beating, Cathy went through another dramatic change. She became more helpful around the house and was loving towards her parents. She worked on her studies and talked of finishing high school one year early. She even went to the tannery with her father in an effort to learn the business. Mr. Ames taught her bookkeeping and how to manage the company money. He was impressed with her good memory when she learned the combination to the safe after only one try.
One day her mother asked Cathy to go to the bank to get the money for payroll at the tannery.
Cathy seized the opportunity. She covered her clothing with an old apron, killed a chicken, drained its blood into a jar, hid the jar, burned the apron, and washed up. Then she left for her bank errand.
A fire broke out that night and consumed the Ames house before anything could be done to save it. At some point in the fire fighting, the crowd realized the Ameses were not among them. When the coroner went through the rubbish, he was surprised to find that the doors had been locked and the keys were not to be found.
The workers from the tannery, who had been helping to fight the fire, returned to work and found that the safe had been broken into. Then, in the carriage house, they found signs of a struggle. Cathy's cross necklace and hair ribbon were found inside, as well as blood on the floor. They believed Cathy had been abducted or killed. People from the town went searching in ponds and in the woods for Cathy's body. They harassed the hobos and the gypsies until they came up with a "bumbling hairy half-wit." They questioned him until he confessed to the crime. When he came before the judge, however, the judge realized he had not killed Cathy. Before long, the town forgot about the incident altogether.
Steinbeck portrays Cathy Ames as a monster who was born with a moral deviance that caused her to lie, steal, be promiscuous, and murder. His notion that morality could be biologically determined was in keeping with some popular theories of his time. Steinbeck does not openly accuse Cathy of any wickedness in this chapter; instead, he describes her strangeness and her father's concern about her behavior. He, therefore, leads the reader to believe that Cathy had some involvement with Mr. Grew that caused him to kill himself; he makes the reader think that the boys had not really tied Cathy up and raised her skirt; and he makes the reader believe, beyond a doubt, that Cathy set fire to her parents home, burning them inside, broke into the tannery safe and stole the money, and set up what appeared to be her own murder.
Although there is some definite action in this chapter, Steinbeck is really still in the introductory section of the plot. He is describing his main characters and setting them up as types. When they all come together, the plot will be launched, and the interactions of these typed characters will create a story with an inevitable working out of its own logic as any determinist vision will do.
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