Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A "Consummate Puritan"

Mr Bridge
Mr Bridge 

"He himself did not care what happened at the house during the day.  There was no more reason for her to be curious about his work than for him to be concerned with the groceries, laundry, getting the children to school, and whatever else she did.  Yet it would seem rude, almost brutal, to drop the pretense and admit that neither particularly cared what the other was doing.  A display of interest, however shallow, made life easier." (p 9)

Mr. Bridge is the converse to the earlier novel, Mrs. Bridge, written ten years earlier by Evan Connell. The story chronicles the life of Walter Bridge and his family, wife India, daughters Carolyn and Ruth, and son Douglas. Just as Mr. Bridge did not play a large role in the earlier novel Mrs. Bridge recedes into the background in this story. The difference is in part one of perspective, as you see the world from the view of Mrs. Bridge in the earlier book. In this one you begin to get some understanding of the reason why, in spite of being set during the depression, the family seems well-to-do which, as we find in the story of Mr. Bridge, is due in large part to the conservative investment habits of Walter Bridge. These are demonstrated again and again and his fixation on preserving a financial legacy for his family would seem a good thing if it was not one more brick in the wall that he has built around himself and his ordered life.  
Walter Bridge's conservatism is not his primary defining characteristic. In a certain sense he  appears to be a stoic.  But he is neither a seriously thoughtful nor a happy stoic in the mold of men like Marcus Aurelius and Henry David Thoreau.  They exemplify the thoughtful and contemplative life of the stoic who accepts this world but yearns to understand it.  Sadly, Walter Bridge's thoughtfulness falls short of understanding just as he falls short of any true sort of stoicism.  His true character, rather, can be defined in two words:   He is a "consummate Puritan". (p 249) That outlook determines Walter's world both for better and for worse.  
Much of the story takes place during the depression years leading up to World War II and while everything's not so up-to-date in Kansas City, there are symptomatic signs of transition--the encroachment of Jews in the neighborhood; or the possibility that their colored servant's nephew will attempt to enter Harvard; or that their own children will be doing unlikely things with unsuitable people. None of these are more unsuitable than his daughter Ruth's intellectual friends in New York whose magazine, "Houyhnhnm", he hides on a upper shelf in his library. Afraid to throw it out in case his daughter should look for it, he is unable to stand the sight of it and what it represents. Swiftian satire was seldom any sharper than this.
Mr Bridge can also be seen as living his life of the edge of feeling. He is out of touch with his wife and children in part because of his taciturn personality, but also because of his inability to communicate. One aspect of this is demonstrated in the scene where he attempts to play ball with his son Douglas and some of his fellow schoolmates. Walter feels that he should do this against his own preference not to and the resulting failure is painful and made only moreso by Walter's attempt to rationalize away that failure. It is emblematic of much of his family life.
Mr. Bridge is also out of touch with the world around him. He is fascinated with the bright yellow socks worn by Dr. Sauer. He thinks: What is it about those yellow socks? Likewise why am I uncomfortable with the young male ballet dancers? His inability to successfully  answer these and other questions about the changes in his world leaves him once again on the edge of feeling. The effect of this, and the events that are chosen by the author and portrayed in the short vignettes that comprise the novel make this a darker work than its predecessor.  At the end, Mr. Bridge is seen as the bewildered, beleaguered midcult man unable to cross the chasm of the generations and changing times.

Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. North Point Press, 1969.

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