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Portrait of a Lady

A second look at Evan S. Connell's domestic masterpiece.

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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The death of Evan S. Connell last month prompts reflection on an American original who, over a lifetime of steady work—many volumes of novels, stories, biography, essayistic speculations—left as his permanent contribution to letters one brilliant, memorable book: the novel Mrs. Bridge, published in 1959.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 'Mr. and Mrs. Bridge' (1990)

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 'Mr. and Mrs. Bridge' (1990)

Everett Collection

To be sure, Connell’s other work notably contained an imaginative biography of General Custer (Son of the Morning Star), an account of the Crusades (Deus lo Volt!), many readable short fictions, and Mr. Bridge, his revisiting of the Bridge family, this time from the husband and father’s point of view. But nothing he subsequently wrote can match the exquisite humor and sadness of Mrs. Bridge. (Even Mr. Bridge is not quite in its class.) Cyril Connolly once declared that the only function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece. This Connell did, and he never came close again.

The novel sold well, even made the bestseller list for a respectable number of weeks, and has stayed in print ever since. Looked at historically, and thinking of other end-of-the-fifties, urban, family-oriented works that have survived, there is Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), John Updike’s first novel in the Rabbit series, Rabbit, Run (1960), Richard Yates’s dark hymn to suburbia in his first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), and John Cheever’s stories from the period. But all of them are set in the American midcentury present; Connell’s novel is firmly anchored in the 1930s and early ’40s, with World War II as a terminus.


Nor are the other books constructed in the special way Connell made up for himself: 200 and some pages broken up into 117 “chapters,” each titled in a terse, usually humorous way. In an afterword to a recent reprint, James Salter tells us that Mrs. Bridge was turned down by nine publishers before Viking accepted it, and surely its unconventional form must have roused doubts—as did, perhaps, the less-than-heroic location of the action in Kansas City, where Connell himself grew up.

Mrs. Bridge, whose odd first name is India (“It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her”), is married to Walter Bridge, an overworking lawyer. Their three children, Ruth, Carolyn, and Douglas, are evenly spaced apart in age and, over the course of the book, grow up and leave the nest, with Mrs. Bridge desperate to fill up the days. The novel’s epigraph is from Whitman’s “Facing West from California’s Shores”: But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound? Mrs. Bridge’s increasing preoccupation with the question reminds us that Connell’s novel predates the second wave of feminism (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963). The novel could be viewed as evidence of the plight of married American women, whether in the 1930s or 1950s, who hadn’t much life outside a kitchen full of the latest appliances. It might also be thought of as documenting the repressed, compliant spouse, dependent for her opinions on her husband’s authority, and subservient to his will.

Yet to speak in this knowing way takes away the charm of Connell’s presentation. For example, at one point Mrs. Bridge decides that what she needs is psychoanalysis, and one night near bedtime she tremulously announces this to her husband as he is reading about the stock market. “Australian wool is firm,” he mutters, then looks “inquisitively” at her: “ ‘What?’ he demanded. ‘Nonsense,’ he said absently, and he struck the paper into submission and continued reading.”

There is a cool touch in the novelist’s treatment of a potentially poignant confrontation that tilts things toward the aesthetic, if ever so slightly.

John Updike once denied that his relation to his characters was a satirical one; since he created them, why should he laugh at their follies? An overstatement, but useful in suggesting why it’s a mistake to treat Connell’s relation to his heroine as a satirical one—putting “the literary scalpel to the suburban skin,” as one of his critics described it. In the first place, it would not be much of a feat to score points off so unprotected and uncertain a figure as India Bridge; in the second, closely connected place, the book is simply too rich in its inventions to be so reduced.

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