Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
This novel tells the story of Hilary Stevens, who reflects upon the various manifestations of the poetic muse throughout her life. She shares those reflections with two young interviewers from a literary magazine who visit her one day at her New England home. Mrs. Stevens, like May Sarton, lives alone in a house by the sea. She loves gardening, and she has made of her home a work of art. The title of Sarton’s novel comes from a reference in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Near the end of the poem, the narrator, a disenchanted middle-aged man, admits, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each/ I do not think that they will sing to me.” In other words, he realizes that his life lacks meaning and purpose. Life has passed him by. Sarton employs Eliot’s lines as a metaphor for the creative individual who hears the mermaids singing—in other words, the writer attuned to her muse, the source of her inspiration, her guiding genius in the creative process.
Before the interviewers arrive for their scheduled visit, Mrs. Stevens gardens, and she reflects upon Mars Hemmer, a young man and neighbor who has become, in some respects, her latest muse. Mars is gay, and he shares with Mrs. Stevens a recent disappointment regarding his love for an older man. Hilary encourages Mars, a budding poet himself, to write about his pain as a way of objectifying it and filtering out his anger and self-pity. At the end of the novel, after the interviewers have left, Hilary meets Mars Hemmer again, and she realizes that Mars represents her masculine side, that part of her which confronted all aspects of her self in the struggle to create poetry. Even in her old age, then, Hilary Stevens uncovers more of the truth about the core of her identity through her friendship with Mars.
Most of the novel consists of conversations between Hilary and the...
(The entire section is 769 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The action of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing takes place at the country home of F. Hilary Stevens in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, during one full day in May and the following morning. Early in the morning of the day that the interviewers are coming, Mrs. Stevens is hailed by her young friend Mar Hemmer, whose plea for a talk she delays until she is properly awake. When Mar does not reappear, Mrs. Stevens plunges into preparations for the interview, which is set for four in the afternoon. During her activities Mrs. Stevens thinks about Mar, her friends, her lovers, and her long-dead husband. At three o’clock, Sarton takes the reader briefly to the nervous interviewers en route to Cape Ann. Then comes the interview, which makes up half of the book. During the talk, Mrs. Stevens relives far more of her life than she reveals to the interviewers. The epilogue returns to Mar, who appears out of the fog the next morning, and with whom Hilary Stevens shares the understanding of herself and of life which came to her during the interview.
The flashbacks during the interview, combined with Hilary’s earlier thoughts, fall into place as a chronological account of her life, the pattern of which she comes to perceive as she talks and as she muses. Rebelling against her controlled, frugal, Beacon Street Boston heritage, at fifteen, Hilary fell in love with her governess: This first “epiphany” produced a novel. Subsequent attachments to men, to the...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloin, L. P. May Sarton: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978. In two parts, the first listing Sarton’s poetry, novels, nonfiction, essays, and articles. The second part lists secondary sources, including book reviews. A conscientious compilation of sources that is most useful to the Sarton scholar. The author acknowledges Sarton’s assistance in putting together this work.
Curley, Dorothy N., Maurice Kramer, and Elaine F. Kramer, eds. Modern American Literature. 4 vols. 4th ed. New York: Ungar, 1969-1976. A collection of reviews and criticisms of Sarton’s poems and novels, the latest entry being 1967. Includes criticism on Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, considered an important book and which the author says was most difficult to write. The supplement has reviews on Sarton’s Collected Poems.
Evans, Elizabeth. May Sarton. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. In this volume in Twayne’s United States Authors series, Evans upholds Sarton as a writer who speaks for women, insisting they claim their own identity; hence, her increasing popularity among feminists. An interesting addition to this somewhat standard criticism is an appendix of Sarton’s letters to her editor while writing Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Selected bibliography.
(The entire section is 405 words.)