Pictures from an Institution is divided into seven chapters, each of which is, in turn, divided into several numbered scenes. Randall Jarrell was enormously knowledgeable about music, and the novel has been likened to a musical composition in which the chapters are like movements and the scenes like themes, recurring point and counterpoint. The narrative begins at the end of a spring term at Benton, an exclusive college for women located somewhere within an easy distance of Harvard and Princeton Universities. The unnamed narrator eventually reveals himself as a teacher at Benton and a poet.
In the first scene of chapter 1, Constance Morgan is serving her last day as assistant to the secretary of Benton’s president. From his office, Constance hears the voice of President Robbins bidding farewell to Gertrude Johnson and the voice of Gertrude Johnson bidding farewell to President Robbins. Both seem delighted to be parting.
By the third scene, the narrative flashes back to late in the fall, when Gertrude comes to Benton to replace a new teacher of creative writing, Manny Gumbiner, who proved in his own mind too “advanced” for Benton and, to Benton, simply “unexpectedly unsatisfactory.” Gumbiner had succeeded Camille Turner Batterson, a genteel Virginian who had taught creative writing at Benton. Offered a chair at a Midwestern university, she had, to everyone’s astonishment, accepted. When Batterson died the following March, a good many people felt that leaving Benton was the true cause of her death. Gertrude, a southerner of quite a different sort from Miss Batterson, cannot abide Benton, but she renders her life there tolerable by using the school and its...
(The entire section is 693 words.)