Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961
In her three published novels, Elizabeth Hardwick demonstrates the complex interplay between the buried life of the emotions, “the cemetery of home, education, nerves, heritage, and tics,” and the emerging life in which the individual seeks self-definition by her own consciousness, her sense of autonomy and transcendence.
The Ghostly Lover
The protagonist of The Ghostly Lover, Hardwick’s first novel, is an obviously autobiographical figure. Marian, slowly coming to terms with family and hometown boyfriend, pursues her somewhat foggy destiny far from her southern home in a city university. She has depended on two illusions: that she can only be supported by some outside force, usually a man, and that she must herself support her two rootless parents, who have abandoned her and her brother since childhood. Parents, powerful in the imagination but in life weak and absent, first the “savage’s totem” from which “being and power” are derived, are lost in pursuit of the American Dream. Her mother, who has “been in too many places, had lives in too many houses, and been neighbor to too many people,” represents in her unformed femininity that immanence of which Simone de Beauvoir speaks, a “guide for the preordained destiny of the daughter” from which Marian must extricate herself at the end, when she is asked to loan the inheritance money on which her journey to the city depends.
Likewise she must reject Bruce, the father-lover of her adolescence who, replacing her own father, pays for her tuition, and then Leo, the city boyfriend, more a peer, but yet representing an escape into marriage and safety. The grandmother, who has reared the children, is an inscrutable matriarch in whom the archaic powers of home and family are located. She personifies that “animal nature,” “the hidden violence of union between the two sexes”; her experience, unredeemed by thought and judgment, is found to be not mysterious but simply illiterate.
In a reversal of the traditional scheme, the shy, repressed girl escapes, while the wild, resourceful brother, Albert, is trapped in the family home, conveniently married to a dumpy, unimaginative town girl. Hattie, the black servant girl, is Marian’s black double, the frightening other whose stubborn autonomy is at once fearful (“black sinfulness”) and attractive. Other women complete her initiation into the underworld of female possibility—neighbor Mary, mother’s friend, with her secret abortion; Gertrude, the German library-science student, lost in the anonymous city; another woman friend who attaches herself pathetically to a man. Moving from the deceptive paradise of childhood to the necessary reality of the adult world, she arrives finally at Grand Central again, meeting the objective correlative of her condition, an “icy ray of light,” no man to meet her, “separatedforever from him [Leo] and his shelter like the forbidden gates of Eden,” self-created at last.
The Simple Truth
Published in 1955 and dedicated to her mother, Hardwick’s second novel, The Simple Truth, concerns moral initiation in a midwestern university town, a location symbolic of American culture and midwestern space and disconnection, marked by psychological introspection and personal anonymity. Rudy Peck, a university student and the son of Finnish immigrants, himself an “anonymous creation” aspiring to selfhood, has murdered his upper-class girlfriend. The girlfriend was an adventurer, self-created in her own uniqueness and style, a quality well noted by Doris Parks, whose Austenesque “true sturdiness” and acute moral sensibility involve her at once as evaluator of the moral landscape in which Rudy, “innocently guilty,” is acquitted.
In this variation on the traditional seduction and betrayal motif, Rudy, a serious, thoughtful young man, is, like Theodore Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths, finally not morally accountable. The trial draws the obsessive attention of Doris’s husband Joseph, a bumbling, sensitive, aspiring writer of ambiguous possibilities, and Anita Mitchell, a small-town faculty wife seeking escape from her limiting environment of “beefsteak, peas, and whiskey”; both Joseph and Anita see in Rudy an expression of their own unresolved condition. At the close of the novel, Doris, whose perspective has gradually become that of the narrator, recognizes the distinct moral spheres she and Joseph occupy and, with a few tears, accepts her own independence and aloneness, one of the “new women” setting out in the politically and psychologically ambivalent American landscape.
Hardwick’s third novel, Sleepless Nights, published in 1979, reconstructs personal experience not in the confessional mode associated with Robert Lowell, but as a piece of “transformed and even distorted memory,” in a series of communications to a friend, “Mary McC” (Mary McCarthy). From contemplation of her rag rug, “product of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home,” the narrator examines the combination of deprivation and survival, loss and preservation in the histories of the “unfortunate ones”—Juanita the prostitute, bag ladies, spinsters, cleaning women, Billie Holiday, and the new woman Marie—with a mixture of “sympathy and bewilderment” at their shared “fateful fertility” on one hand and, on the other, “the old, profound acceptance of the things of life.” In an aura of intimate conversation, they confront broken veins, disease, backbreaking work, self-destruction, divorce, separation, boredom, and perhaps autonomy.
Hardwick’s perspective demands connection and sympathy, not the detachment of either irony or sentimentality. Submerged female life, the other side of time-conscious, outer-directed material culture, becomes emblematic, as female weeping becomes the “weeping sores” of the ulcerated legs, the shame and poverty lurking under the intricate surface detail. Hardwick’s own childhood, her Columbia homesickness and friends, the life in Maine, Boston, and New York, the “lifetime of worrying and reading,” are fused in memory with the paradoxical power and tenacity of the buried life, as the woman, now no longer young, traverses the final sections of the journey into “strange parts of town” fundamental to her creativity and connectedness.
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