The Pequod Review:
Over 117 short and episodic chapters, Evan Connell’s novel Mrs. Bridge depicts the frustrated and alienated lives of an upper-middle-class husband and wife, Walter and India Bridge. The story is told primarily from the perspective of Mrs. Bridge, and focuses on her domestic life — conversations with her husband, petty annoyances with her three children, trips to the local country club, and other everyday events. Through it all, Connell captures the vague low-level sadness and boredom that pervade her 1950s Midwestern life:
One warm windy morning in June she could hardly open her eyes; she lay in the stuffy bedroom and listened to the wind in the trees, to the scratching of the evergreen branches against the house, and wondered if she was about to die. She did not feel ill, but she had no confidence in her life. Why should her heart keep beating? What was there to live for? Then she grew cheerful because she recalled her husband had told her to get the Lincoln waxed and polished. In fact he had told her that three weeks ago but she had not yet gotten around to it. Now, in any event, there was something to do; she would do the work herself. She would drive to the Plaza to an auto-supply store and buy a can of wax and some polish and a chamois, or whatever the salesman recommended, and she would spend the day working on the Lincoln. It had been years since she had done any work, with the exception of puttering in the garden, and it would be refreshing. But then, still in bed, she became doubtful and more reasonable. She had never attempted to polish an automobile, she knew nothing about it, nothing whatsoever, and if she should ruin the finish of the Lincoln what on earth could she say to her husband? He would be amazed and furious because it was so nonsensical; he would manage to control his temper but he would be infuriated all the same, and want to know why she had done it. Could she explain how the leisure of her life that exquisite idleness he had created by giving her everything was driving her insane?
However, she reflected, as she got out of bed holding a hand to her brow to prevent herself from collapsing, she could at least drive to the Plaza and wander around while the Lincoln was being polished. She could look into Bancroft's; perhaps they had some new imports. She could have a late luncheon in the tea shoppe. Surely something else would come to mind by then and soon the day would be over.
Mrs. Bridge tries her best to keep up with politics and culture but she is poorly equipped, both intellectually and temperamentally. So she has to fake it; she merely does what others do, and forms safe and uncontroversial opinions that match those of her peers:
She had never gone into politics the way some women did, though she listened attentively whenever such topics as the farm surplus or public works programs were discussed at luncheons or at circle meetings; she felt her lack of knowledge and wanted to improve herself, and she often resolved to buckle down to some serious studying. But so many things kept popping up, always at the very moment she was about to begin, and then too she did not know exactly where to start. Once in a while she would be on the point of questioning her husband, but, after thinking it over, she realized she would be asking silly questions, and he was so over-burdened with business problems that she did not want to distract him. Besides, there was not much she herself could accomplish.
This was how she defended herself to Mable Ong after having incautiously let slip the information that her husband always told her how to vote.
"Don't you have a mind of your own?" Mabel demanded, and looked quite grim. "Great Scott, woman! Speak out! We've been emancipated!" She rocked back and forth, hands clasped behind her back, while she frowned at the carpet of the Auxiliary clubhouse.
"You're right, of course," Mrs, Bridge apologized, discreetly avoiding the stream of smoke from Mabel's cigarette.
"But don't you find it hard to know what to think? There's so much scandal and fraud everywhere you turn, and I suppose the papers only print what they want us to know." She hesitated, and then spoke out boldly. "How do you make up your mind?"
Mabel Ong, without removing the cigarette from her lips, considered the ceiling, the carpet, and squinted critically at a Degas print on the wall, as though debating how to answer such an ingenuous question, and finally she suggested that Mrs. Bridge might begin to grasp the fundamentals by a deliberate reading of certain books, the titles of which she jotted down on the margin of a tally card, Mrs. Bridge had not heard of any of these books except one, and this one because the author had committed suicide, but she decided to read it anyway.
Her home life with her husband, while peaceful, is unfulfilling. And she lacks the ability to find a way out:
Mrs. Bridge felt tired and ill. She wanted help.
She surmised her husband would not be sympathetic to her idea of being psychoanalyzed, so, for a number of weeks before mentioning it, she planned the conversation. She meant to open with the direct, positive, almost final statement that she was going downtown the first thing in the morning to arrange a series of appointments. That certainly ought to settle the matter he ought to be able to understand the situation. Possibly he was going to inquire how much it would cost, and she was uneasy about this, suspecting it was going to be expensive, with the result that she avoided finding out what it would cost. After all, in spite of his complaints, she knew, and he was aware that she knew, that they had plenty of money.
She tried to imagine all his objections to her idea, but really there was nothing he could say. He would simply be forced to agree. It had been years since she had asked him for anything, no matter how slight; indeed, every once in a while he would inquire if there wasn't something she wanted anything for the house, or for herself. No, there was nothing. It was difficult to find things to buy. She had the money, but she had already bought everything she could use, which was why she often spent an entire day shopping and came home without having bought anything except lunch, and perhaps some pastry during the afternoon.
Having solved whatever objection he might make in regard to the expense, she concluded that all she had to do was let him know her intention. She kept putting it off. She rehearsed the scene many times and it always came out satisfactorily.
The difficulty lay in finding the opportunity to begin. So it was that several weeks slipped away, then one evening after supper, as they were settling themselves in the living room, she with a bag of knitting and he with the stock-market page of the newspaper, she knew the time had come. She pretended to be straightening her knitting, but she was greatly occupied with marshaling her thoughts. He always got to the heart of a matter at once, wasting no energy on preliminaries, and she had to be ready for this. Just then he lowered the paper and she was terrified that somehow he had been reading her mind. Quite often he could, and this more than anything else was the reason she found it exceedingly difficult to defend her ideas. He was glaring at the newspaper.
"Walter,” she began in a tremulous voice, and went on rapidly, "I've been thinking it over and I don't see any way out except through analysis.”
He did not look up. Minutes went by. Finally he muttered, “Australian wool is firm.” And then, roused by the sound of his own voice, he glanced at her inquisitively. She gave him a stark, desperate look; it was unnecessary to repeat what she had said because he always heard everything even when he failed to reply.
"What?" he demanded. "Nonsense,” he said absently, and he struck the paper into submission and continued reading.
It would be easy to mock or denigrate Mrs. Bridge for her vapidity and lack of courage, but Connell’s great skill is to make us sympathize with her — and to connect her experiences with our own moments of loneliness, inadequacy, and other forms of quiet desperation. John Williams’s Stoner (an underappreciated book that explored similar middle-class frustrations) rightfully found an audience forty years after its original publication following a recent reissue by NYRB Classics. Mrs. Bridge is even more deserving of such a rediscovery.