Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Tender Mercies focuses on the aftermath of a terrible accident and its effects on the family involved. The quotations from Virginia Woolf and May Swenson cited at the novel’s beginning pose a question: What happens when, freed of her body, a woman is reduced to the core of herself? The novel explores this question, primarily through the poetic monologues of the victim, Laura, whose body has been reduced to an unfeeling object by the carelessness of her husband of twelve years. Yet Tender Mercies turns an intense and unsentimental light on social relationships beyond the internal one between victim and self. It examines the relationships between husband and wife, among family members, and between a family and the community in which it lives. Stripped of tradition by the accident, these relationships require redefining, and regarding this redefinition the novel poses basic questions related to gender issues. What motivates men and women to marry the people they marry? What is expected from the relationship? What function does a wife or husband serve? In narrative flashbacks throughout the novel, Dan describes his family background, his meeting and courtship of Laura, the accident, and the period of recuperation in New York City. As narrator, he continues to describe the painful struggle to adjust, with Laura’s internal monologues providing the inner landscape from which she faces her dilemma.

The novel begins a year after the accident...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Tender Mercies Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Rosellen Brown specializes in the portrayal of families in the midst of traumatic and often tragic events. In these circumstances, the ordinary, the stereotype, the ritual fall away and the characters must confront the roots of their existence and their relationships. Brown believes that being a mother has shaped her fiction. She writes about all the terrible possibilities about which mothers dream. In her first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother (1976), a daughter returns home to her mother with a small baby; the mother and daughter are basically incompatible and must learn to live together. In Civil Wars (1984), a couple who are active in the civil rights movement are awarded custody of two children orphaned by an accident. The children are adamant racists. In Before and After (1992), an adolescent son murders his girlfriend, and the parents must define their roles in the light of the crime. In Tender Mercies, Brown portrays a couple who are forced by a terrible accident to redefine their relationship; she does so with all the tender and brutal honesty of Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle.”

With a profound understanding of the traditional male attitude toward women, Brown creates a character who is forced to move beyond this traditional philosophy. Dan Courser views women as they have been portrayed in literature for centuries. On the one hand, woman is the temptress to be conquered, even broken, which makes...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Tender Mercies Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Craig, Patricia. “Cripples.” New Statesman 98 (July 13, 1979): 62-63. This article presents a not entirely complimentary review of Tender Mercies. Craig believes that the author has gone a little too far and that the novel contains errors in form and taste. She sees the novel as contributing style, however, and she identifies rehabilitation as the major theme.

Epstein, Joseph. “Is Fiction Necessary?” The Hudson Review 29 (1976-1977): 593-594. This article contains a review of Brown’s The Autobiography of My Mother. Although Epstein thinks that the novel lacks the direction of a real story, he admits that the characters are remarkable, that the book is intelligent, and that Brown is a novelist worth reading.

Hulbert, Ann. “In Struggle.” The New Republic 190 (May 7, 1984): 37-40. Hulbert’s article contains an insightful and extensive review of Civil Wars and several cursory remarks about the first three Brown novels. Hulbert speaks of Brown’s “Keatsian” inclination and, interesting in relationship to Tender Mercies, defines the word “concentration,” a word that Brown uses often.

Rosenbert, Judith. “Rosellen Brown.” Publishers Weekly 239 (August 31, 1992): 54-55. This article contains a review of Brown’s fourth novel, Before and After, brief mention of all of her publications, and a brief biographical sketch. It also focuses on the relationship between Brown as a parent and her fiction. In the article, Brown discusses the economic relationship between female writers and their spouses.

Thurman, Judith. “Rosellen Brown.” Ms. 13 (January, 1985): 82. In 1985, Ms. honored Brown for her willingness to confront major issues in her fiction. This article contains Brown’s comments about her fiction, about reader expectations, and about her home life, as well as a review of Civil Wars.