” 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 will call, someone will be needing her. Yet each day proceeded like the one before . . . 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. (Ch.45, p.94)
Mrs. Bridge, first published in 1958, is an overlooked gem of American literature. Equally underrepresented is the type of its main character, the alienated upper-middle-class housewife, who is thriving in silence, passing from youth to old age. The book is made up of 117 short, themed chapters, documenting the domestic life of middle America through the eyes of Mrs. Bridge between the two wars.
Right from the off, Mrs. Bridge is slightly at odds with her circumstances. Her name for once is odd—India. Her parents must have been thinking of something else while coming up with her name. Early on, one learns that her wealthy, hard-working husband, Walter, doesn’t appear to feel any great passion towards her. But she tries her best to be a good wife and mother. She values courtesy; appearances and manner are her abiding concern. She is always concerned about the eyes that are upon her, never wanting to make trouble for anyone, ensuring her children are cared for and that she puts up neither too many nor too few Christmas decorations, so her house looks festive but not ostentatious. As befit a worrying mother, she goes overboard with her children. She renounces her son’s entering through the back door, calling it “backdoor-it is” as if it’s a disease. She’s disturbed that her daughter doesn’t want to go to college, and moves to New York to be an actress. She has adroitly steered around threatening subjects until she is confronted by a porn magazine in her son’s room.
I honestly believe half my life has been spent arranging the family schedule. (Ch.52, p.111)
Connell writes with sensitivity. For in Mrs. Bridge there’s always a nagging existential fear. She takes hold of her life by dabbling into arts, learning another language, amplifying her vocabulary, and reading books beyond her depth, and yet she has no confidence in her life. As her children grow up and leave the nest, the exquisite idleness much desired by others is driving her insane. She is both sensible and absurd at the same time.
Written from a kind of tilted, ironic angle, Mrs. Bridge is often punctuated by humor that coaxes one into feeling empathetic for her. It’s profound, wise, and above all humane. It’s also a portrait of a marriage with darker implications—one that is outwardly together and yet profoundly isolated from each other. Whereas Mr. Bridge cannot vocalize his feelings, Mrs. Bridge is a confused, lonely woman trapped by the life of leisure her husband has created for her.
246 pp. North Point Press. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]