Pentimento Essay - Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series Pentimento Analysis

Lillian Hellman

Masterpieces of Women's Literature Pentimento Analysis

Lillian Hellman admitted to being a strong-willed and often difficult person from childhood on. In Pentimento, she herself becomes a “character” in her own life story, and her skill in dramatizing herself and those with whom she interacts helps to substantiate the claims of her detractors that the book may be more fiction than truth.

She is quoted by Rollyson as “refusing to be a bookkeeper of [her] life” when faced with accusations that dates and places cited are inaccurate. As William Wright admits, however, the people in Pentimento figure so strongly in the playwright’s life (as well as providing models for characters in her plays) that minute veracity becomes a relatively unimportant issue when evaluating the book.

In a number of instances throughout Pentimento, Hellman adopts a high moral tone, which she recognizes as somewhat false. She does it in “Berthe” when she accuses her aunts of deserting the woman; she does it again in “Willy” when what she really feels is rage at her uncle’s lustful relationship with the Cajun mistress; and she repeats this pose when, after Cowan has “cracked up,” she dismisses him as “a man of unnecessary things.” Helen, however, constantly reminds Hellman that everyone is “getting ready for the summons” (death), so nonjudgmental understanding is preferable to false piety.

The chapter “Julia” is the high point of Pentimento, the one most often the focus of critical attention, both favorable and negative. Peter Feibleman in Lilly (1988) tells how Hellman had told him a story years earlier about a girlhood friend whose life paralleled Julia’s experience, although he admits that the details, such as the wallpaper in the little German restaurant, were certainly added. What may be most important about “Julia” is not whether it is fact or fiction but that it illustrates a very deep friendship between young girls who grow into committed women, illustrating...

(The entire section is 820 words.)