Occasion for Loving is divided into four parts, the first two taking up about two-thirds of the book. The first part establishes virtually all the love and family relationships touching on Jessica Stilwell, many of which are inhibited in some way or perceived by her as disastrously limiting to her sense of personal freedom. Though an acutely perceptive person and not unlikable, Jessica is distant, even cold. The reader understands that one essential purpose of Nadine Gordimer’s novel must be to follow Jessica along an existential path toward greater self-awareness and capacity for love.
The reader perceives, first, that Jessica effectively neglects Morgan, her son by her first marriage (chiefly by ignoring or being perfunctory with him, though hardly cruel), while being normally attentive toward her daughters Elizabeth, Madge, and Clemence, aged about five to nine. (Even here, however, she seeks opportunities to be away from them.) Her husband, Tom, is decent and understanding and relates well to Morgan without condescension—as when the lad is caught with a friend in a sordid dance hall. Tom is an essential stabilizing force in Jessica’s life. Her first marriage, which ended when her young husband was killed in the war, is presented briefly in flashback as having been “unhappy”—chiefly because Jessica was too young to undertake it.
The failed first marriage reflects the failed first marriage of Jessica’s mother—who is known in this novel only as “Mrs. Fuecht,” the wife of her second husband and Jessica’s stepfather, Bruno, a Swiss engineer. Jessica exhibits almost no feeling for her mother, out of resentment of her mother’s selfish failure to “prepare her for life.” Her father died when she was a baby; as a teenager, she would gaze at his photograph and give herself over to romantic fantasy. Her stepfather she despises. It is implied that he was her mother’s lover before the death of Jessica’s father, who had also been Bruno Fuecht’s best friend. It is further implied that Bruno is Jessica’s real father and that she knows it; at her last opportunity to talk with the old man before his death, however, Jessica refuses to see him.
Initially, Jessica also fears the couple who are renting a portion of the Stilwells’ house: Boaz...
(The entire section is 943 words.)