Evan S. Connell: Makes the ordinary seem extraordinary
There are certain books that capture an era. Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell is one of them. Narrated in a superbly rhythmic and shifting tone, the book relays the story of the eponymous character, a wife and a mother living in the verdant suburbs of Kansas City. The straightforward reportage-style narrative is punctured by Mrs Bridge’s personality and partial verbalisation of her innermost thoughts, fears, aspirations and prejudices. Originally published in 1959, Mrs Bridge has recently been reissued in an elegant aureate paperback by Penguin Modern Classics. The book – consisting of 117 vignettes – paints a sympathetic if a somewhat condescending picture of Mrs Bridge, living through the social vicissitudes taking place in post war America. A beacon of old-fashion propriety and manners, she struggles to come to terms with the new ways of the world, her children’s rebelliousness, her husband’s stoicism and the burgeoning realisation that her life is entirely futile. Mrs Bridge, therefore, spends a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by a sense of expectancy, but “nothing intense, nothing desperate” ever happens and yet she can’t shake the “foreboding that one day, without warning and without pity, all the dear important things would be destroyed.”
Mrs Bridge’s pathological fear that her meticulously orchestrated existence will begin to unravel materialises when her three children desert home, leaving her with a life in which neither her wants nor her expectations seem to have been fulfilled; a life without discernible purpose or direction. Her mundane thoughts and activities are interspersed with a superficial desire for transcendence, but her monologues are almost entirely without self-reflection, or a discernible aptitude for it, denoting her hollow configuration. And yet there was once a moment, a singular moment, when Mrs Bridge “almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth”. That moment, however, passed leaving her unchanged, unaffected. In many ways, Mrs Bridge is a heartbreakingly sad book; a mercilessly realistic parody of an ordinary life, described in concise yet unsparing detail, full of ennui, abiding servitude to social mores and dilettantish misgivings about new world progress. Connell captures the primitiveness and primness of Mrs Bridge with nonpareil realism; her reservation; her insipid nature and social stupefaction, which permeate her insular world. Mrs Bridge has never had an original thought in her life, “she brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners” she believes “without question that when a woman married she was married for the rest of her life” and she perennially reserves judgement on all matters, for fear of betraying her ignorance or speaking out of turn.
Every one of the 117 pieces is rippling with real-life situations, personages and instances, universally identifiable as having belonged to a certain generation. In a chapter called Table Manners, for example, it is revealed that Mrs Bridge “judged people by their shoes and their manners at the table”. In another called Guest Towels we learn that she values these bathroom essentials almost equally to her children, thus finding herself “unaccountably on the verge of tears” when one is unexpectedly soiled. Mrs Bridge is a traditionalist, who on occasion ponders the practicalities of tradition in a changing world, only to console herself with the thought that “it was the way things were, it was the way things had always been” and therefore it is the way things should always be. It is precise this attitude that Mrs Bridge’s three children find laughable, and it is precisely these mores that they rebel against having had no choice but to accept them in their childhood. Mrs Bridge’s relationship with her husband, the grimly determined lawyer Walter Bridge, is no less awkward. Kind and hardworking, Mr Bridge treats her to embarrassingly opulent gifts – a mink coat, a Lincoln – for her birthdays but is unable to voice his affections when she summons the courage to ask, thus the wife finds her husband “incapable of the kind of declaration she needs”. Mostly, however, Mrs Bridge doesn’t know what she need or indeed wants, now that her social and familial duties have been met; restless and unhappy she spends her time thinking wistfully of the past – ricocheting around her large, elegant and brilliantly arranged home with a sense of boredom and torpor.
Connell has an uncanny ability to make ordinary things seem extraordinary, and incessantly animated. He manages to evoke completely the tragedy of a woman who has opted for a prudent marriage and family life rather than giving reign to her heart; a woman who while growing up believed “she could get along very nicely without a husband” but who later yielded to convention. He skilfully juxtaposes Mrs Bridge’s life against those of her children; each troubled in its own way, and no one more fulfilling or happy than the other. Inevitably, Mrs Bridge’s story elicits sympathy despite her ostensible hollowness, her humourlessness and her bigotry. In part a satire of the post war social climate, in part an exposition of Middle America, Mrs Bridge is funny and tragic. It is also one of the most accurate and pointed literary portraits of suburban entrapment and subsequent frustration, luring beneath a guise of effortless splendour. One cannot help but speculate that as a Kansas City native this is something Connell may have witnessed first-hand; people crushed under the weight of their own value systems, oppressed by their own beliefs and social affectations. In fact, this phenomenon is something Connell has always been aware of, once explaining: “I have a friend, very Southern, to whom I offered a set of dishes I didn’t need. He did need them because he had just bought an apartment, but he couldn’t bring himself to say yes or no. He had been taught from childhood that one doesn’t answer such questions directly. I’m limited in similar ways. All of us probably know the feeling.”
Connell’s right, all of us probably do know the feeling but some of us can put it into words better than others. This is what makes Mrs Bridge brilliant; that and Connell’s ability to merge his life experience with his work, drawing on his formative years growing up in a similar upper middle-class household with parents who valued courtesy, cleanliness, honesty, thrift, consideration, and other such qualities, above emotional ties with each other and their children. And perhaps that’s the real tragedy of Mrs Bridge, the realisation that her subsumed passions and feelings have left her both lonely and alone. Mrs Bridge is a perspicacious rendering of a bygone era, droll yet distressing, sad yet satirical; a book to rival others by any Kansas City author. Today, Connell lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he moved in 1989. Over the past 50 years, this seldom remembered writer has published nearly 20 books but Mrs Bridge remains his crowning achievement, which has secured his place among the greats of American literary tradition.
This is an excellent review of Mrs. Bridge. Well done.
Thank you. I really enjoyed the book. So subtle yet poignant.
This is a great review! I just finished the book and was flooded with Mrs. Bridge’s tragic longing … I wonder if one would describe the husband as “kind” though…. I thought he was gruff and uncaring. There is a vignette where Mrs. Bridge and her husband are at Church and she says she might faint and he insists she wait and do it outside – as if he couldn’t be bothered with her ailments. He seemed very dismissive of her – I felt that Connell purposely did not make the husband a more sympathetic character. Nonetheless, your review is superb – are you Canadian by the way?
I’m not, no. Why do you ask?
I suppose he’s seemingly kind. Perhaps that’s a better way of phrasing it. I think you’re right he is dismissive in so far as he sees her emotional needs as trivialities. He’s very much a man of his time etc.