A Closed Eye
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
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...
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