Narrative Overview


The images above feature the Yaddo property. Presumably taken by Gladys Fornell, the depictions of nature resonate with Montel‘s descriptions of the Montel home and Lone Pine. Images: Gladys Fornell Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago.

To better understand a thematic reading of Montel, it is first necessary to delineate the structure before summarizing the plot of the novel. Montel is divided into two sections. The first section is set in January of 1952 and serves as a frame narrative for the second half, set in June of 1912. For clarity when discussing both sections of the Montel, we will refer to the 1952 section as the frame narrative and the 1912 section as the core.

At the beginning of the frame narrative, a narrator introduces Philip Montel, a sick, ailing man in his early seventies. He lives alone in his grandmother’s old three-room house and is tended to by his sister, Lucie, and her grandchildren. Philip follows his regular routine, which includes cooking an egg for breakfast and going on a walk through the woods, before internally processing how his life has changed as he aged. Philip contemplates that his wife, Alice, is dead and he was estranged from his daughter, Jane, who moved to Italy approximately two years before the frame narrative and died shortly thereafter; however, Philip then reflects that, although these events were upsetting, he desires nothing more than his current life.

The narrator subsequently describes Philip’s interest in ornithology, the study of birds, and notes that the catbird, a type of American songbird that makes catlike calls, is his favorite (10). Almost immediately thereafter, the narrator states that Philip has a heart attack, one of the “painless heart attacks, rapid palpitations” he has started to experience in recent years from declining health (7). Once the palpitations subside, Philip opens his eyes to see several lamps and a painting slightly askew before realizing that a catbird has flown into the room, upsetting the lamps and painting, and was now sitting in the corner. The narrator then describes that the catbird flies out a window and Philip moves to follow it outside, highlighting that Philip is “no longer able to recognize fact from fancy” (22). The catbird signals a transition into a surreal fantasy sequence, where it grows unclear how many of the events are actually happening and how many are a figment of Philip’s imagination.

The frame narrative’s fantasy sequence is composed of four vignettes. The first of these vignettes begins as Philip follows the catbird outside the house. The catbird is depicted as an exceedingly feminine figure that continually changes size as she flies and teases Philip, both with her physical movements and a siren-like song. Alluring him with a “seductive sedateness,” the catbird leads Philip outside the house, where he views a stage surrounded by pine trees (23). On the rightwing of the stage, there is a stone chapel. The catbird is perched on a cross above the door and sings through her “repertoire of songs” before uttering a scream and disappearing from the scene (26).

When the catbird vanishes, the second vignette begins. Philip looks to the leftwing of the stage, where a white and pink painted automaton, a mechanical device that looks like a human being, appears below two translucent, hovering eagle wings (27). The automaton embroiders a piece of cloth with a red strawberry and glides across the stage, ignoring Philip’s presence. Philip admires the automaton’s physical beauty and mechanical movements before she moves off the stage, gets into a rowboat on the adjacent lake, and the rowboat automatically begin to “row her home” as the scene dissolves (28).

The fantasy then transitions into the third vignette. The narrator states that Philip can no longer see the stage and now stands before a large gulch, where a single lone pine tree stripped of its needles stands. In the midst of this landscape, Philip’s father appears, directing a group of lumberjacks. Logs begin rolling down the hill, removing the lumberjacks from the gulch and replacing them with Philip’s crying brother-in-law, Richard Huntington.[1] Unsettled by the scene, Philip walks away and quickly finds himself before a dark pool of water described as a “land of tears” (31).

Philip subsequently closes his eyes and sinks to the ground in despair, signaling the transition into the fantasy’s fourth and final vignette. Upon opening his eyes, Philip sees a small tin box and picks it up, recognizing it as the same box that had once belonged to his daughter, Jane. The narrator notes that Philip recollects a memory of Jane as a young girl packing the box full of snow one spring and burying it with the intention of digging it up on the Fourth of July. Philip then opens the box, watches a stream of snowflakes fly out to form a cloud, and then jumps upward, “ascend[ing] into blue air” above the snow cloud (33). This sequence serves as the end of the frame narrative.

The core narrative of Montel subsequently begins, set forty years prior to events of the frame narrative. The core is structured as a series of dated entries spanning from June 21, 1912 to June 24, 1912 and taking place on Lone Pine, located in Wisconsin. Events of the narrative focus on a small circle of individuals connected with the Montel family and noted in the preceding character list.

The core narrative opens on June 21, 1912 to Jane playing outdoors. After realizing she needs to go back inside, an omniscient third person narrator mediates Jane’s observations of her parents. Jane becomes a window through which we meet Alice, Philip, and Dick: she views Alice as cold and distant (although desiring a closer relationship with her), Philip as a loving friend, and Dick as handsome and kind. Alice quickly sends Jane to bed and speaks with Philip. This conversation prompts both Alice and Philip to reflect on their relationship. In inner dialogue, Alice admires Philip’s rise in social status since they first met while also questioning her love for him and Philip stresses Alice’s frigidity and latent emotional disconnection.

The next day, a number of visitors arrive at the Montel household for the upcoming wedding of Lucie, Philip’s sister, and Thorvald. While visitors are at the Montel home, Alice reconnects with Pat, who has been in love with her since college. Pat and Alice chat at a party before moving to another room so they can be alone, where it is suggested that they consummate their relationship. Subsequently, Pat proposes and asks Alice to elope. She rejects him, stating at first that she wanted to wait until after Lucie’s wedding before reflecting in inner dialogue that she did not actually want to end her marriage with Philip.

Saddened after Alice’s rejection, Pat leaves the gathering at the Montel home on Lone Pine. He walks outside before bumping into Ingeborg and starting a conversation, where Ingeborg reveals she is Philip’s illegitimate sister (although unknown to Philip). This information prompts Pat to propose to Ingeborg — Pat, still upset that Philip married Alice, believes that marrying Ingeborg will spite Philip, who has a close relationship with Ingeborg. After Pat suggests they elope and run away to Chicago, Ingeborg agrees. Ingeborg leaves a note announcing that she and Pat are “going around the world” together (although omitting that they plan to marry because Pat wants to use this information to upset Philip in the future) and the couple immediately leaves Lone Pine for the train station. (234).

Alice and Philip quickly find Ingeborg’s note and Philip leaves to track down Pat and Ingeborg, hoping to apprehend them before they get on a train to Chicago. Pretending to be unaware that Philip left, Alice also departs as the narrator notes that she wants to warn Pat and Ingeborg without Philip finding out. Alice overtakes Philip, successfully meeting Pat and Ingeborg. As Alice warns Pat and Ingeborg of Philip’s plan to stop their elopement, Pat momentarily acknowledges that his love for Alice will never be reciprocated before departing with Ingeborg to the train station.

Alice and Philip separately return to the Lone Pine, both either unknowing or unwilling to acknowledge that they intervened with Pat and Ingeborg’s escape. Alice and Philip go to sleep and the novel cuts to Jane, who has been absent during a majority of the action. Bessie wakes her up in the middle of the night to go outside as she is allowed to do once or twice a summer and the final scene of the core narrative depicts Jane running through the cornfields of Lone Pine, singing of Wisconsin’s beauty.


[1] Richard Huntington is more often identified as Dick in Montel; however, during this vignette he is specifically referred to using his full given name.