Country Place Summary
Country Place is a departure both from Ann Petry’s first novel, The Street (1946), and from African American literary tradition. Country Place focuses on a community of main characters who are predominantly white; the book’s minor characters are of varying ethnicities and cultures within a small, rural New England town. The conflicts that arise between the characters, however, are conflicts of class. Petry focuses on the demarcation between the aristocratic and working classes to expose the town’s underlying foundations of bigotry, malice, promiscuity, and violence.
The novel begins with the arrival of Johnnie Roane in Lennox as he returns home from World War II. He immediately discovers, in his taxi ride with the Weasel, that his prolonged absence has forced him to view Lennox more clearly. His dreams of a loving reunion with his wife Glory, who he hopes will help him to “forget wars and rumors of wars,” are dashed by the Weasel’s sly innuendo of Glory’s affair with the town rake, Ed Barrell.
Despite his suspicions, Johnnie continues to idealize Glory, even though his love for her thwarts his ambitions and keeps him trapped in Lennox: “You want Glory . . . but having her means Lennox. So you forget you ever heard of a paintbrush or a drawing pencil or a place known in some circles as Manhattan Island.” Glory, however, is not willing to accept Johnnie back. His absence has enabled her to feel independent, and her job at Perkin’s store allows her to receive much attention from the men in town. Bored with the thought of marriage and domestic chores, Glory becomes attracted to Ed Barrell, the town stud with a bad heart, who habitually enters into affairs with married women.
Glory’s mother, Lil, haunted by the uncertainties of her harsh financial existence as a working-class single mother, manipulates the unambitious but wealthy Mearns Gramby into marriage. Together, the couple lives at the Gramby home with the venerable Mrs. Gramby and the family servants. Despite her manipulations, Lil never seems to get what she wants. She is relegated to the background of the Gramby family and never receives the respect she believes her newfound status deserves, from either the townspeople or the Grambys’ servants. Lil’s prejudice compels her to lash out perpetually at the black maid, Neola, and at the family’s Portuguese gardener; she fantasizes about the day when Mrs. Gramby will die and the Gramby estate and prestige will become her own.
The plot becomes complicated, as a violent storm ensues that forces the characters’ “reluctant examination of their lives.” Johnnie’s discovery of Glory’s affair with Ed forces him to cast away his idealized portrait of her, and he comes to see her realistically as “the soapbubble, the dream, the illusion.” He considers himself as not only a veteran of World War II but also a veteran of “the never-ending battle between the ones who stayed at home and the ones who went away.” Escaping his entrapment of Glory and the town, Johnnie leaves for New York in order to find himself as an artist.
The darkness of the storm forces Mrs. Gramby to examine her guilt and motives as a woman blindly following tradition. Lamenting the knowledge she now possesses of Lil’s afffair with Ed, and her own complicity in the steps that led to it, she contemplates the nature of society as both good and evil. While she will revenge the cuckolding of her son, she vows to enable good to come out of evil. Transcending narrow-mindedness and the dictates of tradition, she hires the town’s only Jewish lawyer, David Rosenberg, to make out her will, which disinherits Lil to include Neola and the gardener in her place. She also wills land on Main Street to the Catholic church, which has been relegated to the impoverished section of town.
Lil, motivated by avarice and wholly unaware of Mearns’s and Mrs. Gramby’s discovery of her previous affair, attempts to kill Mrs. Gramby by withholding her insulin....
(The entire section is 1,091 words.)