Ostensibly an innocuous collection of episodes spanning her adult life, from marriage to the onset of old age, Evan S. Connell’s novel is a brilliant study in the alienation and infantilisation of India Bridge, whose life is circumscribed by her husband, her children, and the trappings of a suffocating moneyed domesticity in interwar Kansas City. With unflinching realism Connell details Mrs Bridge’s struggles to understand those around her from a position of well-meaning but utterly shallow convention and deference. We see that this convention is all she has to cling to as her children grow up and rebel in entirely predictable ways, displaying an individualism she cannot comprehend. For Mrs Bridge deals in types of person each with their proper place, she has such trouble with names because she cannot connect with individuals, let alone the expression and non-conformity that might come with such self-consciousness. The irony of her surname, coupled as it is with so exotic a Christian name, in so parochial and disconnected a person should be lost on no one.
Connell’s realism is made poignant by the humour with which he explores Mrs Bridge’s increasingly confused interactions with her limited world. Whether it be her doomed attempts to make her son conform by wearing a hat or the shock of some revelation about her absent but utterly dominating husband, Mrs Bridge’s uncomprehending alienation is constantly underlined by the absurdity of the situations she engineers for herself and the world for her. She rarely asserts herself except in the cause of convention – the correct use of cutlery or the treatment of guest towels – and when she does it is a well-meaning but uncomprehending failure. One by one she drives her children away.
Every now and again, however, there are flashes of a deeper and repressed existential awareness, of ‘a terrifying inarticulate need’ for a past, for a future, that is the most human of all Mrs Bridge’s fears. She is spurred to try new things, but each time initial enthusiasm falls prey to a circumstance she might overcome were the will present. Yet she fails to assert herself and falls back into old rhythms once more. Connell controls all this with a fearful precision, allowing Mrs Bridge to edge closer to some existential epiphany, but always bringing her back to the surface before she becomes what Sartre termed ‘authentic’; before, that is, she decides to control her own fate by choosing the kind of life she wants to lead.
Yet Connell’s novel is more complex than a simple call to self-consciousness. In one episode he depicts the worst excesses of individualism with a violence which once again shocks, but cannot quite unbalance Mrs Bridge, at least not for long. The challenge is to find a position of rest between blasé propriety and outré excess; but such equilibrium will not come for Mrs Bridge because it requires some internal counterweight to the pressure of outward order. Her loneliness is borne of such a lack of self-definition and the repressed hopes and desires of a confused and unfulfilled promise.
Mrs Bridge might be read as a comment on the predicament of the women of the interwar years, caught as they were between a stifling domesticity and burgeoning emancipation; it might be read as the peculiar disconnection of one woman in the conservative surroundings of Kansas City; or perhaps as a penetrating and unrelenting pursuit of the human condition made manifest in a confused, fearful individual whose central predicament is summed up in one question she herself asks: ‘Do you want to be different from everyone else?’ The contradictory answers we all give to such a question form the tense heart of this very good novel.
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