The Magazine

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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When Mrs. Bridge and her lady friends attend a stage performance of Tobacco Road, a once-reputed “earthy” novel by Erskine Caldwell, the ladies agree that they didn’t much like the play. Mrs. Bridge doesn’t see why such a play is “necessary,” yet it has its effect. One hot morning, she forgoes wearing stockings, then is embarrassed when two elderly widowed sisters come to call: “ ‘My goodness,’ cried Mrs. Bridge as she greeted them at the door. ‘I look like something out of Tobacco Road!’ ” Connell then begins a new, very short chapter with perhaps the book’s longest sentence:

Having been repelled by Tobacco Road to the point where it obsessed her, she employed it as a pigeonhole: whatever she found unreal, bizarre, obnoxious, indecorous, malodorous or generally unsavory, unexpected, and disagreeable henceforth belonged to Tobacco Road, was from there, or should have been there.

If this is “satire,” it is of the sort T. S. Eliot once called “creative” rather than “critical,” emanating not from an animus directed at some piece of human folly, but from an impulse to enhance the folly rather than reduce it. So Mrs. Bridge becomes the focus of a complicated, densely witty construction rather than something to be scornfully dismissed.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure we can derive from reading Mrs. Bridge is in the confirmation it provides of things we’ve forgotten about, like “Guest Towels” (the title of Chapter 13). These are put out for visitors but never used, either by them or by members of the Bridge family. When Mrs. Bridge goes around to collect the “little pastel towels,” she finds one missing, then discovers it in her son Douglas’s bathroom, filthy. It has obviously been used by him, whom she finds sitting in a tree in the adjacent vacant lot and who admits to having dried his hands on it. “ ‘These towels are for guests,’ said Mrs. Bridge, and felt herself unaccountably on the brink of tears.” As Douglas climbs higher into the tree, she begins to feel foolish, waving the towel and addressing someone who is invisible to neighbors who might possibly be watching. The scene is perfect in its compression, concluding with her repeating that guest towels are for guests, as Douglas climbs higher in the tree.

Then there is the problem of how far to go in decorating one’s house at Christmas. Mrs. Bridge (like my mother) believes in making the home “festive without being ostentatious.” This she does unfailingly, and, on one holiday occasion, she takes the children for a ride in the car to look at the Christmas decorations of others. One house, outrageously, has an enormous cutout of Santa Claus on the roof, “six reindeer in the front yard, candles in every window and by the front door an enormous cardboard birthday cake with one candle. On the cake was this message, ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR JESUS.’ ”

How might an inventive writer end this chapter, titled “A Matter of Taste”? By having his heroine declare, thoughtfully, “My word, how extreme. .  .  . Some Italians must live here.”

As a professor of literature, I have “taught” the novel many times and always wonder what part of it to conclude with. Late in the book, Mr. Bridge presents his wife with a Lincoln automobile, the size of which intimidates her. In trying to parallel-park, she remembers that Douglas, in a fit of measuring things, had determined that the Bridges’ pantry is approximately two cubic feet smaller than the Lincoln. But this does not assist Mrs. Bridge as she struggles to park the car, thinking “that it would have been easier to park the pantry.” At novel’s end, she is sitting helplessly inside their garage, the Lincoln’s motor having died, without room for her to exit the vehicle.

This is, of course, a metaphor for the lonely confinement of her life that the death of her husband and the departure of her children has brought on. It is an affecting close, but maybe too painful a note for the professor to end on. I choose, instead, another moment of the woman’s defeat, but one that Connell has surrounded with more than enough literary compensation. Mrs. Bridge, determined to surprise her husband with a favorite dish she hasn’t made in a long time, mixes up a batch of pineapple bread to accompany the less-than-thrilling casserole that is dinner. “ ‘Oh-ho!’ says Mr. Bridge, rubbing his hands together, ‘What have we here?’ ” As directed, he cuts into the fragrant-smelling loaf:

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