The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel is, to some degree, a roman à clef. The author filled a part-time teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, during the 1946-1947 academic year. He worked sporadically on Pictures from an Institution from that time until 1954, when it was published in its final form. Appearing in the novel under fictional guises are Henry Taylor, then-president of Sarah Lawrence, and his wife; Jarrell’s New York friends Jean Stafford, Hannah Arendt, and her husband, Heinrich Bleucher; Sara Starr, the daughter of longtime Jarrell friends from Nashville, Tennessee, the place of Jarrell’s birth; and the author himself. Which real person’s behaviors and personality traits have been given to which fictional character is, however, problematic. For example, in Pictures from an Institution, Gertrude Johnson uses her six and a half months at Benton to gather material for a withering novel she will write about the place. The narrator looks somewhat askance at this behavior. In real life, though, it was Jarrell himself who used his year at Sarah Lawrence as Gertrude uses hers at Benton.

Characters are presented in the round, but since the novel is a satire, it is their foibles that are emphasized. President Robbins is a former Olympic diver, a Rhodes Scholar, and the recipient of an LL.D. from a college in Florida that also awarded a “doctor of humor” degree to Milton Berle. Mrs. Robbins affects British...

(The entire section is 542 words.)