The central focus of Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is the protagonist’s uncertainty about her own identity and about the meaning and purpose of her life. The first sentences of the book, linked to the epigraph from Walt Whitman, establish this emphasis: “Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her.” In her own eyes, and in those of the narrator of Connell’s novel, from the start of the book she is “Mrs.” Bridge, wife of the successful lawyer Walter Bridge, mother of his three children—Ruth, Carolyn, and Douglas Bridge—and a typical female member of her upper-middle-class circle in Kansas City, Missouri. Depending for her identity upon the stability of the social milieu in which she lives, Mrs. Bridge, as her way of life and the values of her class come under fire in the two decades before World War II, experiences boredom, a sense of purposelessness, and eventually even a vaguely terrifying sense of isolation.
Covering a period from the early 1920’s to the early 1940’s, with an emphasis on the last ten years of this period, Mrs. Bridge presents the action as a series of 117 episodes from the life of the title character and not as a unified, symmetrical plot. Connell’s introduction of Mrs. Bridge compresses her first thirty-five years of life into the three pages of the first two episodes, and in it he establishes both her utter conventionality and her disillusionment with her life. Venturing to express to her young husband her own desire for sex, she is ignored: “This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.” As a young mother, she is frustrated in her expectation that her children, like her, should go through life with an unimpaired set of conventional values. She is shocked when Ruth, as a very small child, strips off her bathing suit and parades around the neighborhood swimming pool. She is annoyed when Doug insists on using the guest towels in the bathroom, towels which her guests are sufficiently well-bred not to use; she is antagonistic when Carolyn chooses Alice Jones, the daughter of the black gardener working next door, as a Saturday morning playmate. In episode after episode, Mrs. Bridge confronts evidence of the inadequacy of conventional responses to life. Her friend Grace Barron, similarly restless and dissatisfied, exhibits signs of depression and by the end of the novel commits suicide. Mabel Ong, the mannish Kansas City clubwoman, decides to seek help from a...
(The entire section is 1066 words.)