Diane Johnson Essay - Critical Essays


In Diane Johnson’s novels, the central characters are often women caught in circumstances in which they feel trapped and insecure; inevitably, the pressures of contemporary life and social problems contribute to their frustrations and cause them to fight to extricate themselves. Usually suffering more than men from loss of identity and dehumanization, they reach out to experiences beyond their confined lives in the hope of finding a new paradigm for surviving. Men in Johnson’s novels frequently become impediments and adversaries, for these women’s difficulties arise partly from unsatisfactory relationships with men. Johnson’s characters share a desire to be free from the wife-mother syndrome, to make choices, and to break through the complexities of relationships that keep them mired in unhappiness. They are intensely aware of the limited circumference of their lives as they are held in an emotional abyss.

The novels’ settings intensify the difficulties and predicaments of the characters: for example, the unrest and impending revolution in the last days of the shah of Iran; the decadent, atrophying Los Angeles subculture; the confusion of French society; the chaos of violent African communities; and the social unrest of the 1960’s. Although Johnson’s early novels are light and satiric in tone, the subsequent works become increasingly serious as the characters are forced to reevaluate their lives and make compromises about their futures.

Fair Game

In Fair Game, Johnson’s first novel, Dabney Wilhelm is a creative young woman who has her own business making children’s clothes and who has also written a children’s book. She must grapple with the nature of a woman’s ultimate responsibility: marriage, children, husband, or a creative commitment. Several letters by Dabney to Mr. Trager, a famous young poet, are interspersed throughout the novel and reveal her search for an identity and her concerns.

Dabney is acquainted with men who seek to guide her, and thenarrative is told from their alternating points of view. The guru-philosopher Emerson Kado seeks to control Dabney intellectually and to protect her creativity. A symbolic key scene is an orgy at Kado’s home where, in a ritual of fertilization, real blood is thrown and he gives a speech on evil. Frightened by the event, Dabney retreats into her more ordered existence. Marcus Stein, a psychiatrist, wants to make love to Dabney in order to free her emotions; he accuses her of not wanting to take chances and says that she is too concerned with ensuring her success. The young man to whom Dabney is engaged, Charles Earse, wonders whether she will be a good wife and is distressed by her literary aspirations. The various emotional harnesses these men try to fit on Dabney come to nothing when she runs off at the end with the poet.

The novel is satiric in tone; it does not have the underlying intensity that develops in Johnson’s later novels, or the later works’ sense of despair. Although Dabney is searching for and exploring options in her life, she is able to assess the difficulties, make a decision, and seek her identity with confidence.

Loving Hands at Home

Unlike Dabney, Karen Fry in Loving Hands at Homeis already trapped in a stultifying situation. She has no particular talent and is a middle-class housewife with two children who has married into a Mormon family only to find herself stifled by their expectations of a perfect wife-mother role for her. She finds continual frustration in trying to meet the high demands of her home-economist mother-in-law, Mrs. Fry, and to break the indifference of her husband, Garth. For Mrs. Fry, a lopsided cake that Karen bakes for the ritual family Sunday dinner symbolizes Karen’s unworthiness.

Karen seeks escape in a “secret life.” She applies for jobs that she has no intention of accepting—interesting, strange jobs such as fortune-telling. When she is offered a job, the approval this suggests diminishes her feelings of inadequacy. Whenever Karen breaks out of her structured life, however, she meets with an incident that frightens her, forcing her back into the role she hates. Remembering her childhood in a small midwestern town, she thinks of Alma, the girl nobody was permitted to play with, a member of the “shiftless poor.” Alma’s rebelliousness and recklessness look increasingly appealing to Karen, caught as she is in a rigid structure where domestic accomplishments represent the ideal of femininity. When she learns that Alma has died from a reaction to a drug, however, she sees such freedom as less appealing.

Karen becomes aware that all the Fry family togetherness is beginning to break down. She catches Mrs. Fry, the mother of seven children, making love with a deliveryman. Sebastian Fry, who is the curator for Paris Pratt, a wealthy, mysterious benefactor of artists, is in love with Karen’s poetic image, while his wife, Patty, a convert to Mormonism, valiantly tries to keep their home together. Feeling a closeness to the sensitive, creative Sebastian, Karen, in a moment of recklessness, makes love to him on the floor of Mrs. Pratt’s bedroom. To Karen, this act is another attempt to free herself. When Mrs. Fry hears of the incident, she chides Karen for not living up to the Mormon role of womanhood and for ignoring the sanctity of marriage. Karen again takes flight, only to return, unable to face the uncertainties of the future on her own.

The novel’s climactic scene occurs at one of the Frys’ regular Sunday-night dinners. Mrs. Fry insists on eating some suspicious-looking mushrooms, while the others refuse to eat them, signifying a waning of her influence. Suddenly distraught, Mrs. Fry confesses her infidelities in a wild scene. She becomes violently ill and ultimately blames all the dissension on Karen, the outsider, and locks her in the bedroom, telling her that she is not “allowed to walk out on this life.” When Garth and the other family members fail to come to her rescue, Karen escapes by climbing out the window, realizing now that she must reassess her life.

Earlier, Mrs. Pratt, another of Johnson’s guru-type characters, has told Karen that she looks as if she has “not made the important decision yet”—is it possible to be happy? She tells Karen that she must discover an “organizing motif.” In the novel’s final scene, Karen and her children are on the beach, totally absorbed in building a sand castle. They know that they are “doing an important thing,” and it is “an extraordinary, inspired sand castle.” Karen is not running or waiting; she is “reorganizing.”


Johnson focuses on social institutions in Burning, a satiric attack on the Los Angeles subculture and particularly on social welfare agencies. A historic event, the 1961 Bel Air fire, is the backdrop for the climax and parallels the social disintegration of this world.

The novel covers one day in the life of Barney and Bingo, a middle-class couple with two children who live in the hills of the wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air. When the hedge separating them from their neighbors—psychiatrist Hal Harris, Harris’s wife, and his patient Max—is cut down by the fire department as a fire hazard, there is a symbolic breaking down of the barrier between Barney and Bingo’s “calm and orderly” world and that of the guru psychiatrist, drug dependents, an unfit mother, and group therapy. Barney and Bingo go through a rite of passage, gradually losing their illusions in a “jungle” that they cannot comprehend. The novel’s point of view alternates between Barney and Bingo; indeed, Barney is one of Johnson’s more fully realized male characters.

The world of this novel is askew. The psychiatrist provides drugs, followed by sex, to his patients, but he really prefers his plants. Having given up on his patients, he gives them drugs to sedate them, insulating them from the life he himself avoids; he has retreated from society because he no longer believes in human improvement. Despite Harris’s attitude, Max, an unfit mother and drug addict, looks up to him as a father, and his other patients depend on his therapy to keep them going. When Bingo is persuaded to substitute for Max in an appearance at a child-welfare agency hearing, Bingo assumes that because she is stable she will pass the test. Her interview with the child-welfare worker is the incisive satiric scene of the novel. Although Bingo gives honest answers, she fails the test and is declared an unfit mother. She is indignant but shaken, and she is further disturbed by the fact that she believes the social worker’s judgment. She begins to look at herself with less certainty, feeling isolated and inadequate in this environment.

Barney expresses the novel’s central metaphor when he comments that one must experience the “pains and exaltations of life” and likens these to a “hard, gemlike flame.” Thus he admonishes Bingo, when, at the end, as the fire is raging and water is needed desperately, she wants to take a shower. He accuses her of not caring, of not being committed.

There is a symbolic moment in the book’s final scene, when Barney and Bingo are faced with the changes in their lives and the loss of their illusions. She laments, “Terrible, terrible. What shall we do?” He replies, “We have each other.” The ironic distance in their responses indicates that they are more apart than they realize; Bingo’s ability to deal with the changes in her life is dubious.

The Shadow Knows

In The Shadow Knows, Johnson skillfully depicts the psychology of a woman fearing for her life and beset with other anxieties, who panics. Similar to a detective story, the novel begins with the remembrance of a violent crime and ends with a rape. The Shadow Knows covers one week in the life of “N,” who is a victim of terror and acts of violence. A young, divorced mother of four, a graduate student, involved in a love affair with a married man, she...

(The entire section is 4140 words.)