Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Birth Year Reading Challenge: Mrs. Bridge

This novel is a nice bookend to Housekeeping, because the title character here, despite her exotic name, lives a life of complete 1940s conventionality. But here, as in Housekeeping, change is inevitable.

India Bridge does everything the classic female role demands, and has everything such a classic female should want. She marries a husband who works long hours to provide for his family. She supervises an upper middle class household in which almost all of the actual work is performed by housekeepers and gardeners. She raises her children with the utmost discretion, avoiding any semblance of confrontation. She attends various women's clubs and takes a few classes. Despite her unruffled surface, she sometimes struggles with ordinary tasks like parking her own car (because her son, recently enamoured of geometry, has announced that the car is two feet larger than the kitchen pantry). She has a mink, and a trip to Europe, and female friends.

But there are signs that things are changing. What we know as modern life intrudes at every turn. Her son winds up in the military, although he says he's a Buddhist. One daughter leaves home for a bohemian life in New York, and the other daughter marries unhappily. A female friend is rumored to be a Communist, or at least an intellectual. Another commits suicide. And Mrs. Bridge herself discovers that the passing of time leaves her more and more dissatisfied with her life, although she is unable to understand why.

In some ways, Mrs. Bridge is overdue for a good old-fashioned consciousness-raising. She could dearly use some insight into the fact that everyone's excessive deference to her matron status has made her nearly helpless to handle her own life. On the other hand, she has leisure, security, material comforts, and a devoted (if somewhat distant) husband. Why should she push outside the boundaries society has set for her? And if she did, what would she find there? What would she become? Would she be happier and more fulfilled if she multi-tasked her home life with a career? Or would that change merely substitute one set of unrealistic expectations for another?

I'm not sure how I should answer those questions, or what I would hope for Mrs. Bridge. Her immersion in her role eclipses much of her personality, or perhaps the role has become her personality. We learn many things about her in the series of subtle vignettes that make up this novel, but I can't say that we know her. So it's not easy to celebrate her or denounce her as a symbol of idealized womanhood. What is the price of social stability, anyway?

Excerpt:

At one of the Auxiliary meetings a discussion arose as to whether it might not be a good idea to amend the constitution of the Auxiliary so as to include the words "under God." ... Everyone else got up to say it was a good idea, except Mabel Ong--being particularly severe in a tailored suit and string tie--who argued against it, and it was common knowledge that Mabel, being an intellectual, argued against the majority rather than against the question. So, late in the afternoon, the resolution was passed. Of fifty-six ladies present, fifty-four voted to include God. ... Mrs. Bridge wished it could have been unanimous; unanimity was so gratifying. Every time she heard or read about a unanimous vote she felt a surge of pride and was reminded, for some reason, of the Pilgrims. She enjoyed all kinds of oaths and pledges and took them regularly, remaining cautious only if her signature was required; signatures were binding, this she knew, and she was under the impression that they were often photographed, or forged, or whatever it was that unscrupulous persons did with signatures.

1 comment:

  1. Newman and Woodward are a perfect team in this movie. I must read the book!!

    ReplyDelete

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