This post is about an overlooked classic of American literature, which I stumbled upon by accident through an old essay by Tom Cox. It’s the debut novel by Evans Connell, Mrs. Bridge, which was published in 1959.
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. The sheer simplicity of Connell’s prose is paralleled by the simplicity of the life he depicts. It’s a novel in which nothing happens and yet everything is at stake. It’s a model of how muted writing can pack overwhelming emotional power. And it’s the only example I’ve ever encountered in which a man in his 30s is able to vividly portray the inner life of a middle-aged woman.
The structure of the book is unique — a collection of 117 short chapters, some only two or three pages long, which dole out brief vignettes in the life of the most ordinary of women. As I read, I kept waiting for something dramatic to happen and yet kept reading anyway as I got increasingly drawn into Mrs. Bridge’s experience of her life.
Here’s how Marc Weingarten characterized the book in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal.
There has never been a more beautifully modulated book about the deep-freeze of a human soul than “Mrs. Bridge.” Evan S. Connell’s 1959 novel is a masterpiece of understatement, its story culled from glimpses of the title character’s drearily parochial existence as a lawyer’s wife and country-club matron in Kansas City, Mo., between the wars. India Bridge passes through the rapidly changing American scene in a kind of self-willed trance: “There were half a dozen mirrors along the wall. Mrs. Bridge did not dare look into any of the mirrors, and as the four of them marched along she wondered if she was about to lose control of herself. Where are we going? she thought. Why are we here?”
In the book’s afterword, James Salter writes about
the repressed emotion, shallowness, and bland materialism that the full novel so powerfully evokes. India Bridge, her husband, children, friends, and others around them are depicted without any trace of sentimentality in prose that is exact and scrupulously honest. At the same time, for reasons that confound, it is prose that is irresistible. Though she may wonder helplessly in the end—her husband dead, two of her children virtually estranged and the third in a disastrous marriage—What have I done wrong or failed to do? What is also implicit and just as moving because it is unstated is India Bridge meekly thinking, What have I missed? But Connell does not sit in judgment, that is left to the reader who may not even sense that a judgment is to be rendered, so sympathetically even the least of the characters are shown. It is from this, a profound and forgiving generosity, that the unexpected warmth of the book comes.
Here are some of my favorite passages from the book, to give you a sense of the quality of the writing and a few glimpses of the central character.
She was not certain what she wanted from life, or what to expect from it, for she had seen so little of it, but she was sure that in some way—because she willed it to be so—her wants and her expectations were the same.
Early in her marriage,
there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep. This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.
Mrs. Bridge finds herself inventing activities in order to fill the functional void of her days. At one point she announced to her cook that she was going shopping.
She felt somewhat guilty as she said this because in reality there was no shopping to be done, but, with the children again in school and with Harriet to do the cooking and housekeeping and with the laundress coming once a week to do the washing, Mrs. Bridge found the days were very long. She was restless and unhappy and would spend hours thinking wistfully of the past, of those years just after her marriage when a day was all too brief.
A politically engaged friend encouraged Mrs. Bridge to explore and assert her own political views, so she reads a book espousing liberal views and decides to approach her husband on the subject.
She really intended to force a discussion on election eve. She was going to quote from the book of Zokoloff. But he came home so late, so exhausted, that she had not the heart to upset him. She concluded it would be best to let him vote as he always had, and she would do as she herself wished; still, on getting to the polls, which were conveniently located in the country-club shopping district, she became doubtful and a little uneasy. And when the moment finally came she pulled the lever recording her wish for the world to remain as it was.
In one chapter called “Clock,” we see how oppressive Mrs. Bridge finds the passage of time:
She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting. But waiting for what? She did not know. Surely someone would call, someone must be needing her. Yet each day proceeded like the one before. Nothing intense, nothing desperate, ever happened. Time did not move. The home, the city, the nation, and life itself were eternal; still she had a foreboding that one day, without warning and without pity, all the dear, important things would be destroyed. So it was that her thoughts now and then turned deviously deeper, spiraling down and down in search of the final recess, of life more immutable than the life she had bequeathed in the birth of her children.
One fathomless instant occurred on a windy, rainy night when Harriet had gone to church, and the children were out, and only she and her husband remained at home. For some time, perhaps an hour or more, they had been reading, separately; he had the financial page of the newspaper and she had been idly reading of the weddings that day. The rain blew softly against the windowpanes, shutters rattled, and above the front door the tin weather stripping began to moan. Mrs. Bridge, with the newspaper in her lap, listened to the rumbling and booming of thunder over the house. Suddenly, in total quiet, the room was illuminated by lightning. Mr. Bridge lifted his head, only that and nothing more, but within Mrs. Bridge something stirred. She looked at her husband intently. “Did the clock strike?” he asked. “No, I don’t believe so,” she answered, waiting. He cleared his throat. He adjusted his glasses. He continued reading. She never forgot this moment when she had almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth.
Her lawyer husband expressed his love for her by working all the time and providing all of the material comforts that he could. He gave her everything except his presence and his emotional support.
Could she explain how the leisure of her life—that exquisite idleness he had created by giving her everything—was driving her insane?
The light snapped on in the back hall. She heard his cough and the squeak of the closet door and the familiar flapping sound of his briefcase on the upper shelf. Suddenly overwhelmed by the need for reassurance, she turned swiftly from the window and hurried toward him with an intent, wistful expression, knowing what she wanted without knowing how to ask for it.
He heard the rustle of her dress and her quick footsteps on the carpet. He was hanging up his coat as she approached, and he said, without irritation, but a trifle wearily because this was not the first time it had happened, “I see you forgot to have the car lubricated.”
At one point later in the book, her friend Grace, whose life was so much like her own, committed suicide.
To intimate friends, to those who knew the truth, which was that Grace Barron had swallowed over fifty sleeping tablets, Mrs. Bridge talked more openly. They asked one another familiar and similar questions because, in many ways, Grace Barron was indistinguishable from anyone among them. Their problems had been hers, their position, their wealth, and the love they knew, these also had belonged to her. “It came as such a shock,” Mrs. Bridge heard herself say again and again. “It’s awfully hard to believe.” She often wondered if anyone other than herself had been able to divine the motive; if so, it went unmentioned. But she herself had found it instinctively less than an instant after hearing the news: her first thought had been of an afternoon on the Plaza when she and Grace Barron had been looking for some way to occupy themselves, and Grace had said, a little sadly, “Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairy tale—the ones who were all hollowed out in the back?”
So at one point she screws up her courage to tell her husband that she needs therapy. Here’s the scene.
He resumed reading. A few minutes later he said, “Allied Chemical: up four! Great Lord! What’s going on here?” After this he was quiet for a long time, coughing once, shaking the paper into shape. Mrs. Bridge, having noted it was almost time for bed, decided she must speak.
“Walter,” she began in a tremulous voice, and went on rapidly, “I’ve been thinking it over and I don’t see any way out except through analysis.”
He did not look up. Minutes went by. Finally he muttered, “Australian wool is firm.” And then, roused by the sound of his own voice, he glanced at her inquisitively. She gave him a stark, desperate look; it was unnecessary to repeat what she had said because he always heard everything even when he failed to reply.
“What?” he demanded. “Nonsense,” he said absently, and he struck the paper into submission and continued reading.
At the very end of the book, with her husband dead and her children alienated, Mrs. Bridge decided to get in the car and go for an errand. She backed part way out of the garage when the engine died, and she found herself unable to open the car door.
Having tried all four doors she began to understand that until she could attract someone’s attention she was trapped. She pressed the horn, but there was not a sound. Half inside and half outside she remained. For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?” But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.
And that’s the last line of the book.