A Closed Eye

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 367

Harriet Lytton, the protagonist of Anita Brookner’s eleventh novel, is a daughter who feels she must please and protect her parents. A CLOSED EYE is Harriet’s story, from birth through childhood, a loveless marriage to a man her parents’ age, motherhood, and lonely widowhood. An intimate study of Harriet’s feelings...

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Harriet Lytton, the protagonist of Anita Brookner’s eleventh novel, is a daughter who feels she must please and protect her parents. A CLOSED EYE is Harriet’s story, from birth through childhood, a loveless marriage to a man her parents’ age, motherhood, and lonely widowhood. An intimate study of Harriet’s feelings and moral development, particularly her relationships, the novel shows Harriet’s resistance to self-knowledge, her awakening at midlife, and her flirtation with adultery.

Readers familiar with the work of Henry James will find many similarities here: slow pacing, emphasis on moral decision, and the use of confrontational scenes followed by extensive rumination. Brookner updates James by focusing on contrasts between docile, obedient characters and the self-assured and grasping. The novel’s central themes include the importance of self-awareness, freedom, and the life of the senses. The failure of marriage to fulfill most women and the transience of life are also dominant subjects.

A retrospectively told tale, A CLOSED EYE offers many literary pleasures for the astute reader. Carefully interwoven throughout are images of light and dark, reflecting the characters’ moods, and numerous allusions to several nineteenth century novels, including the works of Henry James, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and the French writer Stendhal. Scenic detail and descriptions of interior decor also enrich the novel.

Since 1981, Anita Brookner has published a novel every year—subtle, ironic, and carefully written portraits of isolated, melancholy protagonists struggling with moral dilemmas the more frivolous never consider in their pursuit of personal pleasure. Harriet Lytton is such a protagonist, yet her life seems especially bleak. By the novel’s end, everyone closest to her has died. Brookner’s beautifully written novel deserves a less stark ending.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. March 22, 1992, XIV, p. 7.

The Christian Science Monitor. July 10, 1992, p. 11.

Library Journal. CXVII, February 1, 1992, p. 121.

Los Angeles Times. March 27, 1992, p. E4.

New Statesman and Society. IV, August 23, 1991, p. 35.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, May 14, 1992, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, April 12, 1992, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, April 27, 1992, p. 106.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, January 13, 1992, p. 45.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 23, 1991, p. 20.

The Wall Street Journal. March 30, 1992, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, March 22, 1992, p. 6.

A Closed Eye

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2135

Harriet Lytton, the protagonist of Anita Brookner’s eleventh novel, is, like her creator, the daughter of parents adversely affected by World War II, whom she feels she needs to please and protect. Consequently, as Brookner said of herself, she becomes “an adult too soon and paradoxically never” grows up (Paris Review, Fall, 1987). A Closed Eye is Harriet’s story, from her birth in 1939 and childhood with Merle and Hughie Blakemore, two people “too young, too feckless” to be parents, through a loveless marriage with a man her parents’ age, motherhood, and ultimately lonely widowhood. An intimate study of Harriet’s feelings and moral development, the novel offers an ironic, tragic portrait of a woman who has chosen to keep self-knowledge “at bay for half a lifetime” and who, once awakened, finds despair. Indeed, because Harriet has obeyed and acquiesced to others her entire life, she has been both untrue to herself and inauthentic in all her relationships.

Taking its title and epigraph from Henry James’s novella Madame de Mauves (1874), A Closed Eye is a novel James himself might have written. Moreover, midway through, the reader imagines that had James written Mrs. Bridge (1959), Evan S. Connell, Jr.’s masterpiece, the result may well have been A Closed Eye. Brookner’s heroine feels as desperate in her “truce with painful truth” and her stultifying, conventional middle-class marriage as did Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, yet the style and pace of Brookner’s novel, its concern with moral decision, and its use of confrontation scenes followed by extensive rumination by the main character are typically Jamesian. Structurally, A Closed Eye is retrospective fiction, apart from two opening chapters that set the stage for what will follow. The opening chapter, in fact, evokes a mystery. Harriet is writing an invitation to Lizzie, later revealed to be the daughter of Harriet’s deceased friend Tessa. One name, Harriet writes, must be avoided at all cost. It is only much later in the novel that the reader discovers this name is Imogen, Harriet’s own daughter, who has been killed in an automobile accident. From this opening epistle and the chapter that follows, A Closed Eye explores Harriet’s relationships with all the major characters: her parents, her girlfriends, her husband, and her friend’s husband—Jack Peckham, who opens Harriet’s closed eyes—as well as Imogen and Lizzie. Although Harriet remains the center of consciousness through most of the novel, Brookner shifts the point of view occasionally to provide insights from others, particularly Freddie, Merle Blakemore, Imogen, and Lizzie. Thus the novel’s main point of view is omniscient, though Brookner refrains from the nineteenth century device of direct authorial commentary on her characters. Others’ views of Harriet, however, provide an essential contrast to her own shame-filled judgments of herself.

What characterizes the relationships in A Closed Eye, as in other Brookner novels, is contrast: contrast, for example, between the self-assured and often selfish and the docile and obedient; between those of sanguine and those of melancholy temperaments. Harriet Lytton fits decidedly in the latter categories in the above examples, but this is not to suggest that Brookner takes a simplistic view of her characters. On the contrary, her focus is the struggle of the melancholy, obedient type to take action—a conflict evolving from their keenly developed moral consciousness—and their failure to grasp what comes easily to the more self-confident. That it is pleasure, sensation, and feeling that define life is made clear throughout A Closed Eye. The self-assured know this and grasp for what they want. (Tessa, Harriet’s friend, wants the handsome Jack, her lover, as husband, and so gets pregnant.)

Harriet comes to realize the value of the sensory life through the course of the novel, though she is never able to find physical fulfillment. Ironically, she is born to people who know the pleasures of active sociability. Harriet’s father, permanently damaged by his experiences as a prisoner of war, is a perpetual boy, “frozen at the age of immaturity, and curiously unlined,” yet he delights in the sensory ritual of toast and tea. Harriet’s mother, who supports the family with a dress shop prior to Harriet’s marriage, cares for her husband but finds passion with the landlord, Mr. Latif. Such compromises, usually the result of careful calculation, are everywhere evident among Harriet’s associates, including her own daughter, yet Harriet keeps her eyes closed for much of the novel, choosing, instead of the path of pleasure, a more virtuous and morally arduous life. Significantly, Merle and Hughie’s frivolity allows them to marry off their only daughter to a man her father’s age, a wealthy buddy of Hughie from World War II. The compromise causes some pity for Harriet, but not enough to discourage either Merle or her husband. Indeed, Harriet’s marriage provides both financial and social ease for her parents.

Other sets of contrasts in A Closed Eye include the marriage of Tessa and Jack and that of Harriet and Freddie, as well as the children of those marriages, Lizzie and Imogen. A ruthless though appealing cad, Jack Peckham has the vitality and sexual magnetism Freddie lacks. He becomes for Harriet the handsome stranger of her fantasies, “the villainous hero of romantic fiction, the cruel lover who breaks hearts and thrills women.” So powerful is Jack’s effect that Harriet instinctively hides her splotchy red facial birthmark when she first meets him. The gesture, Brookner writes, is “symbolic, as if she were hiding more than her face, as if she were hiding herself,” her sexual, passionate self. Additionally, while Jack marries Tessa for their child’s sake, he continues to live in his own flat and keep a mistress, even taking her to his wife’s funeral. Freddie, in contrast, is a dull, reasonable man. Although a “careless,” “even violent” and “foul-mouthed” lover, he is Harriet’s “protection, her support, her very respectability.” Harriet, moreover, unlike her girlfriends, including Tessa, is unable to actuate an adulterous affair, though Jack Peckham clearly invites such a relationship.

Ironically, Lizzie and Imogen are so unlike their mothers that they might be changelings. Like Harriet, Lizzie is guarded, composed, a lover of books and solitude. She has neither Jack’s nor Tessa’s beauty. In contrast, Imogen, the astonishingly beautiful daughter of dull Harriet and aging Freddie, is high-spirited, imperious, and “adept at imposing her whims.” Moreover, while the two girls are infants together and spend hours under the care of Harriet, the central issue in Lizzie’s life is her absent father, whom she longs to make proud. Imogen sees her faded father as “too old…and too graceless to be accepted.” Her behavior deeply hurts Freddie, but Imogen remains distant and cold. Ironically, she functions as her mother’s alter ego, not only in her rejection of Freddie, but in her freedom and love of adventure, so much a part of Harriet’s fantasies yet consistently repressed.

In one early scene shortly after her marriage, Harriet watches the silhouette of a figure shadowed on the window shade of a flat opposite her back garden. “The mysterious window” where the figure appears is “always closed yet always lit up” and the figure always agitated, “like a prisoner, for whom she [Harriet] felt a terrified sympathy.” The scene introduces one of the subtler themes in A Closed Eye: that of the darker, concealed shadow self. For Harriet, this shadow is her sexual, adventurous self, the antithesis of her respectable self, which she represses for the sake of her marriage. The shadow and dream motifs in A Closed Eye are psychological devices that grant depth to Brookner’s characterizations. The more ostensible theme of the novel is feminist: Harriet, like her mother Merle and her three female friends, has suffered a disappointing marriage. They all have sacrificed youth, happiness, freedom, even a closeness they once had. To protect the dignity of their husbands, the women now retain secrets, replacing the transparency of their girlhood friendship with adult opacity. As in other Brookner novels, women pay dearly for marriage.

Other dominant themes in this novel are memento mori and its corollary, carpe diem: all is decaying; seize the day. A renowned art historian and former lecturer in art at London’s Courtauld Institute, Anita Brookner knows the memento mori images of Dutch art and uses them in her novel, particularly in her portrayal of Freddie, a frequent gallery visitor. In one scene, he encounters a “sinister” picture with a foreground of “split fruit, a peach or a nectarine” with a fly on “the lip of the fruit…breeding corruption.” Startled, Freddie realizes “that the picture was meant to remind him of his own decay.” Harriet, too, must face corruption and death: the growing fragility of her parents, Tessa’s cancer-caused suffering and demise, Freddie’s ill health and eventual death, her daughter’s accidental death. All the people closest to Harriet die in this novel, with the exception of her aging parents, leaving her life empty. Like the Dutch painter of the canvas Freddie observes, Brookner seems to say to her reader: “There is no escape.… [O]ur substance is being consumed.” The only salvation is to seize the moment and live.

Literary allusions abound in A Closed Eye, particularly to nineteenth century novels. Aside from the epigraph from Henry James’s Madame de Mauves and reference to Harriet’s reading What Maisie Knew (1897), Brookner establishes parallels between Harriet and the heroine of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit (1855-1857), another novel Harriet is reading. Like Amy Dorrit, Harriet is a devoted daughter, ends with a “wreck of a husband,” and is good, always wanting “to be good, believing that if one wished it so one could become perfect.” Jack Peckham too, in Harriet’s imagination, is a hero of romantic fiction: Mr. Rochester of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), who is uncontrollable until dependent and blind. Allusions to T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) also appear, emphasizing Harriet’s inability, like Prufrock’s, to communicate her true feelings. In a clear echo of Prufrock’s words, at one point in the novel Harriet thinks, “Oh no, that was not what I meant at all.” The last and most extensive allusion is a lengthy quotation from the work of the French writer Stendhal. Occurring in the last pages of the novel, this passage from an unidentified work is translated for Harriet by Lizzie and emphasizes the importance of sensation and the life of the senses, without which there is only death.

Paralleling many of the novel’s themes, moreover, is “a sort of progressive darkening” in the imagery, imagery designed to match the closing of Harriet’s life with the deaths of her husband and daughter. Indeed, Brookner uses light and darkness throughout the novel to reflect her characters’ moods. In one scene, for example, sunshine coming through a dusty window parallels Harriet’s hope for passion glimmering amid the dust of her marriage. Like any observer of art, Brookner also has an eye for painterly detail and interior decor. She depicts the Blakemore’s Brighton apartment, Jack’s Judd Street flat, and Harriet and Freddie’s various homes in London and in Switzerland in masterly, vivid detail, from carpets to drapes to furniture. Natural scenes too are evocatively sketched, one rendered like a nineteenth century Impressionist canvas:

The air shimmered; in the boat basin the little craft were motionless on the tideless waters. Tiny brown waves spread over the cobbles below the wall on which they leaned, momentarily dazzled.

That such descriptions match her heroine’s moods adds irony and depth to Anita Brookner’s work.

Since 1981, Anita Brookner has published a novel every year, each a subtle, ironic, and carefully written portrait of isolated, melancholy protagonists struggling with the moral dilemmas the more frivolous never consider in their pursuit of personal pleasure. Harriet Lytton, like heroines before her, is such a protagonist, yet her life seems particularly bleak. The reader can only hope by the end of the novel that, with her husband dead and Lizzie agreeable about visiting Switzerland, Harriet will reestablish her ties to Lizzie’s father, the man who awakened her life. Brookner’s beautiful novel deserves a less stark ending.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. March 22, 1992, XIV, p. 7.

The Christian Science Monitor. July 10, 1992, p. 11.

Library Journal. CXVII, February 1, 1992, p. 121.

Los Angeles Times. March 27, 1992, p. E4.

New Statesman and Society. IV, August 23, 1991, p. 35.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, May 14, 1992, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, April 12, 1992, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, April 27, 1992, p. 106.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, January 13, 1992, p. 45.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 23, 1991, p. 20.

The Wall Street Journal. March 30, 1992, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, March 22, 1992, p. 6.

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