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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 238

Set in the Great Depression, much of the novel centers on the relationship between the Bentleys, a married coupled concerned over their childless state.

Philip Bentley is a minister who keeps getting moved to different congregations. His withdrawn, depressed state creates a right in their marriage. Philip’s problems, which seem...

(The entire section contains 1767 words.)

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Set in the Great Depression, much of the novel centers on the relationship between the Bentleys, a married coupled concerned over their childless state.

Philip Bentley is a minister who keeps getting moved to different congregations. His withdrawn, depressed state creates a right in their marriage. Philip’s problems, which seem based in shame over his illegitimate birth, include a sense of inadequacy as a pastor that is shaping up into a mid-life crisis.

Mrs. Bentley, whose first name is not revealed, provides the organizing structure of the novel in the form of her diary entries. Her emotional distance from her husband is compounded over remorse at being childless and, moreover, previously having delivered a stillborn baby. She seems equally as depressed as Philip. She suspects him of cheating on her with Judith, who gets pregnant.

Paul Kirby, a schoolteacher in the town to which the Bentleys have recently moved, falls in love with Mrs. Bentley.

Steve Kulanich is an orphaned/abandoned boy whom the Bentleys adopt but is later removed by Catholic priests because the Church disapproves of their Protestant influence on his upbringing.

Judith West, Mrs. Bentley’s friend, is apparently infatuated with Philip. When she becomes pregnant, the unrevealed identity of the father adds a wrinkle to the plot. The Bentleys decide that they will adopt the baby without telling her they will be the parents. Ultimately, Judith dies and they do adopt the baby.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

The Bentleys’ contempt for Horizon and its provincial values is the social expression of their private despair. Philip, an aspiring but unaccomplished artist, has become a clergyman not out of religious conviction but simply in order to make a living, while Mrs. Bentley, a moderately talented musician, has given up dreams of a musical career to play the organ in her husband’s church on Sundays. Philip’s unhappiness expresses itself in his rejection of all social intercourse; he habitually retreats to his private study, where, instead of writing sermons, he sketches the bleak landscapes and false-fronted towns which reflect the desolation and hypocrisy he feels. Mrs. Bentley is plagued by guilt. Believing that marriage has thwarted her husband’s artistic ambition, and feeling sensitive about his disappointed desire for children, she takes extraordinary pains to humor Philip’s eccentricities. Occasionally, how ever, her excess of guilt and resentment explodes outward in angry tirades against him; unable to bear the emotional burden alone, she must sometimes force him to share it.

Ironically, although neither husband nor wife is happy, Mrs. Bentley derives a perverse security in their sharing of unhappiness. This security is shaken when Paul Kirby introduces them to Steve. The Bentleys adopt Steve in spite of the murmured protests from the townspeople that Steve comes from a bad family and, worse, that the boy is a Roman Catholic. Projecting onto Steve the indignation he still feels toward his own boyhood humiliations, Philip defends Steve passionately against the opinion of the town. Mrs. Bentley’s attitude toward the boy is ambivalent: “I like Steve, and at the same time I resent him. I grudge every minute he and Philip are alone together.” Mrs. Bentley’s resentment is twofold. Steve’s intrusion interrupts the domestic routine which has become the sole basis of intimacy in her marriage, but more significant, the child’s presence arouses her ancient guilt: “guiltily again I remembered the boy of his own that I haven’t given him.”

Mrs. Bentley is rescued from her isolation when Paul Kirby invites the family to take a holiday on his brother’s ranch. At the ranch, everyone is rejuvenated. Steve gets his own horse and develops self-confidence; Philip immerses himself in fresh scenery, which he can paint uninterrupted by clerical duties; and Mrs. Bentley, in a relatively carefree evening at a town dance, feels momentarily young again. The Bentley household is cast into emotional turmoil once more, however, when Steve is taken away. The Bentleys’ habitual resentment of small-town bigotry returns when they suspect that “someone went to the trouble of sending word to an official of the Roman Catholic Church that he was living in a Protestant home.”

During the long winter of Judith’s pregnancy, Mrs. Bentley conceals her suspicions of her husband’s infidelity. Instead of confronting him, she tests him by insisting he pay Judith a pastoral visit. Mrs. Bentley sends with Philip a gift of oranges. Judith’s response to the gift is ambiguously tearful, but it evokes Philip’s sympathy: “She cried when I told her they were from you—all afternoon, one in each hand, as if that could help.” Although it is difficult to discern whether Philip’s outrage is feigned or sincere, he retaliates against his wife for the guilt she stirs in him by accusing her of indiscretion in her friendship with Paul. Philip is rather more aware than his wife is of the younger man’s infatuation, and he resents her insensitivity to the consequent awkwardness which has arisen between him and Paul.

The birth of Judith’s baby brings the complex of relationships to a crisis, which ultimately resolves itself in hope. Judith’s death offers the sacrificial atonement which allows Mrs. Bentley to forgive her husband’s infidelity. The child provides the familial bond which has been missing from the Bentleys’ marriage. Paul can more easily withdraw his amorous affections from Mrs. Bentley once she takes on a maternal role with her new baby, and Philip, whose own guilt had led him to accuse his wife of infidelity, is finally released from the destructive cycle of guilt and blame when she intimates that she knows his guilty secret and has forgiven him.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822

Mrs. Bentley

Mrs. Bentley, the wife of Philip Bentley; her first name is never given. She narrates the novel through the journal she keeps during two years of their life in Horizon. She is pale, with dark shadows under her eyes, wears no makeup, and often mentions that her clothes are shabby. She is a loyal, loving, and protective wife but also a frustrated artist, having given up her study of the piano to follow Philip. She records her despair at Philip’s growing alienation from her and from his work, her guilt at not being able to have children after giving birth to a stillborn son a year after their marriage, and her resentment of the conditions of spiritual and physical poverty in which they are forced to live. As an educated and sensitive outsider, she despises the pettiness and mean-spiritedness of many of her husband’s parishioners but is careful not to offend them; she is reserved and makes few friends. Recognizing her husband’s unhappiness, she takes an aggressive role in collecting his back salary from the towns where he previously preached, saving money so that he can afford to leave the church. She also takes the lead in trying to resurrect their faltering marriage, supporting her husband’s ill-fated attempt to adopt Steve Kulanich, an abandoned teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, and finally accepting Philip’s illegitimate child as an adoptive son when the child’s mother dies in childbirth.

Philip Bentley

Philip Bentley, a United Church minister, the illegitimate son of a waitress and a young preacher who aspired to be a painter and died before his son’s birth. Philip is thirty-six years old, a strong, handsome man despite his tired eyes and the haggard look caused by poverty and unhappiness. He entered the church to receive the education he could not otherwise afford, planning to repay his loans with a year or two of preaching; he now finds himself trapped financially and unable to escape to pursue a career as a painter. Solitary since childhood, Philip becomes even more withdrawn and defensive. Guilty over his lack of faith and his inability to help his parishioners, or to improve his own financial situation, he is barely tactful with his congregation and repeatedly rejects his wife’s attempts at intimacy. His only outlet is his drawing, which often takes the form of bitter, satirical portraits of the town and its people. Initially passive toward his wife’s attempts to enable them to escape from Horizon, he becomes more hopeful after they decide to adopt his illegitimate son.

Paul Kirby

Paul Kirby, a schoolteacher and self-described philologist, smaller and less handsome than Philip. Paul befriends both Bentleys and is clearly infatuated by Mrs. Bentley. Although he is educated and sensitive to the larger life outside Horizon, he is at peace with his surroundings and serves the Bentleys as a bridge between the small town and the completely rural countryside from which he comes. He brings Steve into their lives and provides them with the means for a brief vacation at his brother’s ranch. Paul’s open admiration of Mrs. Bentley finally forces a confrontation between Philip and his wife that serves to place them on a more honest footing with each other.

Judith West

Judith West, the daughter of a farm family from the hills north of town. She has returned to Horizon after taking a commercial course in the city. Failing to find work there, she now assists the town clerk in his office and also works as a servant in his home. She has striking looks; she is pale, with attractive eyes and a lively smile. The matrons of the congregation tolerate her because of her contribution to the choir but are otherwise suspicious of her independence. Mrs. Bentley befriends her cautiously, recognizing the potential danger of Judith’s feelings for Philip. With the birth of her son and her own death, Judith provides the Bentleys with the means to begin healing their broken marriage.

Steve Kulanich

Steve Kulanich, who comes to live with the Bentleys when his father and his live-in lover are forced to leave town, abandoning the twelve-year-old boy. He is quick-tempered and accustomed to fighting with the respectable boys who taunt him about his parents. His temper, which leads him into several fights with the twin sons of the influential Mrs. Finley, and his persistent Catholicism, even after he is adopted by the United Church minister, disturb the congregation. The Catholic orphanage authorities are called in and take Steve away.

Mrs. Finley

Mrs. Finley, the president of the Ladies Aid and “first lady” of the congregation. She represents much of what is petty and mean-spirited in Horizon. She is a thin woman, concerned with her status and power, who manages everything. She increases Mrs. Bentley’s feelings of inadequacy in her roles as housekeeper and parson’s wife.

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Critical Essays