Quiet Desperation

Mrs. Bridge is an American masterpiece of prewar repression and postwar realism.
Elinor Carucci/Art + Commerce

Mrs. Bridge50th Anniversary Edition
Evan S. Connell

First published in 1959 (after multiple rejections) and now reissued for its 50th anniversary, Mrs. Bridge, which crystallizes the emotions, attitudes, and inchoate yearnings of an upper-middle-class housewife in prewar Kansas City, occupies a strange limbo in American literature. Discerning critics have long placed the novel, especially in conjunction with its partner volume, Mr. Bridge (1969), among the masterpieces of the golden age of postwar fiction, along with the finest work of Bellow, Cheever, and Roth. But Evan S. Connell has never won those authors’ prominence, so upon each reissue, Mrs. Bridge is a new—and thrilling—find, even for many sophisticated readers.

Mrs. Bridge’s first name, India, suggests that she might be somehow exotic, and she flutters momentarily, vaguely, toward a life that could be unusual—to her parents’ consternation, she has the idea “that she could get along very nicely without a husband.” But such a course is thwarted in a matter of a page and a half, when she slips into the conventional groove of marriage. In an accretion of dead-on telling moments, and in vignettes with mundane titles such as “Guest Towels,” “Frayed Cuffs,” and “Pineapple Bread,” Connell reveals a woman who scrupulously adheres to the decent yet shallow values she was taught: nice manners, a pleasant disposition, and cleanliness.

Such superficial niceties function as a sort of muffling carapace against the experience of life, much as the canvas covers that Mrs. Bridge keeps zipped over her suitcases protect the leather but keep her from enjoying its gleam. Intolerably uncomfortable when things go “too far,” she’s disturbed, for instance, when her young son builds a tower of junk in the vacant lot next door. Ultimately, she has the tower destroyed for fear of what the neighbors will think, but her deeper anxiety comes from her recognition that her son is growing up, becoming a person she can no longer understand and control.

Sensitive enough to feel dissatisfied with her life but too uncertain to change it, she exists halfway between one friend who “liked everything about Kansas City,” with whom she feels confident and comfortable, and another who is desperate for a fuller, wider life, with whom Mrs. Bridge feels stimulated but insecure. She loves and is devoted to her husband and is sure of his love for her, but she’s thwarted in her attempts to communicate with him; they stand together but hardly know each other. Her utterances are gay or soothing; inoffensive in the extreme and therefore exquisitely banal. She once surprises herself by admitting her dislike for a friend’s poems, but quickly butters it over by declaring, “I’m sure I couldn’t do half as well.” Privately, however, she’s plagued by doubt and despair. Because she can’t imagine a role for herself other than mother and housewife, when her children are no longer young and her housekeeper does the cooking and cleaning, her hours are entirely empty. “Why should [my] heart keep beating? What [is] there to live for?” she wonders, afraid to get out of bed and face the day’s long nothingness.

We can mock (although Connell himself never sneers at) Mrs. Bridge’s lack of self-awareness and her slavery to the prevailing culture; even as she’s overwhelmed by too much time, she touts the “time-saving” virtue of tasteless frozen strawberries. We can scoff at her submission to her husband, her racial prejudices, even her timidity when parking her Lincoln, to reassure ourselves that she’s a relic of the past. Anyone, however, who has limped through a dull dinner party, offering up chipper observations because it’s the socially decent thing to do; anyone who’s baffled by her own grown children, who finds herself mindlessly agreeing with the political opinions of her friends, who suspects there’s probably something better to do with her time—but has somehow neglected to develop the internal resources to figure out what; anyone who occasionally fears she may someday die “without ever having been made to see all [life] may contain” and then allows daily trivialities to distract her, will realize otherwise.

The book has very little plot and its drama is subtle, merely the bewilderment of a well-intentioned woman. Internally compelled to defer to her parents’ and her husband’s and her social milieu’s idea of how she ought to be, Mrs. Bridge never becomes India. That can fairly be called a tragedy.

Christina Schwarz’s novels include Drowning Ruth.
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