Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing Themes

May Sarton

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton is concerned with the woman as artist. In order to explore this issue, she distinguishes what she calls masculine qualities, such as objectivity, detachment, and aggressiveness, from feminine qualities, such as an openness to emotion and a readiness to provide nurture. Although the feminine qualities may produce an impulse to create art, rather than children, the rejection of the maternal impulse is difficult, while the production of art when the artist is exhausted from being a mother is even more difficult.

Sarton is convinced that the Muse is feminine in nature. For a man to be inspired by a woman is conventional. Although a woman may love a man, however, she is inspired by women. Here the lesbian theme becomes important, for the feminine Muse may sometimes be a feminine lover. Yet as Mrs. Stevens comments, the source of inspiration is less important than the work created. The source disappears; the work endures.

A third theme, then, is the necessary progress of the artist from isolation to solitude. After the Muse is gone, for a time the deserted or rejected lover may feel the miseries of isolation. Yet as she begins the process of creation, isolation becomes blessed, self-contented solitude. It is this solitude which Mrs. Stevens welcomes after the interviewers leave and Mar is attended to.

Finally, the revelation which comes to Mrs. Stevens at the end of the day of the interview is an insight into living as well as into writing. The process of that day has been symbolized by the Venetian mirror, somewhat cloudy but both beautiful and usable, which remains from her marriage. Mrs. Stevens must see herself in order to profit from the incidents of her life, however painful. For her will come insight; for her work, inspiration. Instead of striking out at false lovers or carping critics, she must conquer herself. As she points out to Mar, the blasted quarry finally becomes a still and beautiful lake. Thus pain produces not only art but also knowledge, and Hilary urges Mar to accept life, pain and all, rather than to diminish himself, like so many Americans, by refusing to give himself for fear of suffering.