Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Pym is not a novelist chiefly concerned with the sort of abstractions called “themes.” Her novels, though not strictly autobiographical, arose out of personal observations-real details, situations, and quirks of personality. Creation of a small world, exploration of the minds inhabiting and observing that world, making sense and situation from the characters she has envisioned: These are Pym’s preoccupations. For example, a reader of Pym’s diaries and letters will discover the germ of the Rocky Napier character in Pym’s wartime experiences as a Wren officer in Italy, the substance of St. Mary’s parish in the neighborhood in which the author lived as she wrote Excellent Women.

Still, one does leave Excellent Women with something more general than the memories of a few months spent with Mildred Lathbury. The novel shows the difficulty of all sorts of human communication, especially between men and women. It permits readers to understand, from the inside, a particular form of altruism, that of the unmarried Christian woman called “excellent.” Finally, and most characteristic of Pym’s talent, it reveals the richness of a quiet life that might be thought barren, the delight in detail and sharpness of observation that can make ordinary people, however little they do or achieve in conventional terms, both admirable and fulfilled.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The narrator, Mildred, is confided in and trusted by several characters who lead less orderly, more complicated lives than hers. She becomes involved with an engaged couple (her minister and his fiancee), and a quarreling married couple (her downstairs neighbors). Some of these, notably the vivacious but spiteful neighbor Mrs. Helena Napier, seem condescending and patronizing towards Mildred, even as they seek her help. Mildred grows increasingly discontented with her own life which seems so unexciting and boringly stable. Helena pities Mildred for not leading "a full life." The novel raises the questions of what constitutes a full life and, whether a woman like Mildred must have a man in order to live fully.

To some extent, the answer to the latter question seems to be yes. At the novel's quietly upbeat ending Mildred has possible involvements with two reasonably suitable men, and "it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called 'a full life' after all."

(The entire section is 161 words.)