On Keeping Women

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)
ph_0111207180-Calisher.jpg Hortense Calisher Published by Salem Press, Inc.

On Keeping Women by Hortense Calisher is divided into five chapters or sections. Often, the writing style of this book resembles a prose poem—fluid, abstract, and beautiful. The narrative point of view, which changes from the divided self of the female protagonist, to her husband, to each of her children, to her former employer, and back to her rejoined self, is complicated and often confusing. Is the reader presented with an actual change in perspective, or is he voyaging on a mental odyssey of the female character’s imagination which projects other people’s thoughts in her search for her own language? If the events in the novel are told from different perspectives, then the misunderstandings and misconceptions surrounding the action in the novel are unfolded to the reader, but are kept hidden from the characters who are involved. In this way, the text resembles James Joyce’s Ulysses; we, the readers, are allowed to view the action and to peer inside the minds of the characters, but ultimately we remain outside of the text. However, the reader is often linked to another character in the book who feels that he is on the outside, too. In mutual voyeurism, identification, knowledge, and understanding occur, in spite of the thoughts that are expressed in fragmented syllables and sentences.

In the first section of the novel, “Touching upon Youth,” Lexie lies on the riverbank in front of her house while she drifts, like the Hudson, through the memories of her thirty-seven years. The only present action is her state of repose and present thoughts that involve the condition of her nude body on the riverbank. Practically all other events, characterizations, and emotions surrounding Lexie are presented in past tense—via her memory. The only experience that we as readers can share with her is her reunion with her husband. The effect of this flashback mode of unfolding herself keeps the reader emotionally stifled. The picture is too well-defined and onesided. Not that there are not various ways of interpreting this novel—quite the contrary. However, the places where one is, in Lexie’s terms, “vagued out” may be due to Lexie’s misconceptions, or to our miscomprehension of characters whom we rarely do see in present action.

From the nucleus of the present of “Lexie on the riverbank,” several family incidents are revived from the past; however, the second generation is more complicated and intense, and has a peculiar effect upon the first. The wheel of fortune has come full circle, and some of the characters of the second generation are repeating the actions of the first. Lexie and Ray’s daughter, Chessie, is seventeen and more severely schizophrenic than her mother was at this same age. Although Chessie looks like her father, she thinks like her mother. Her siblings Charles, Maureen, and Royal try to keep her under control, but cannot. Unfortunately, there is no doctor-husband to engage her into settling into normalcy; instead, her father, Ray, who understands the strong connection between his daughter and his wife, is strongly attracted to her and kisses her passionately. He is not really certain (and neither are we) when he realizes it is Chessie, not Lexie, that he is kissing.

Chessie’s brother Charles has witnessed the passionate embrace, and it is through him that we see the event. Although he has a strong allegiance to his father, Charles assumes the role that Lexie’s older brother James had played in her earlier life. As the guardian of Chessie, Charles tries to keep her mental explosions hidden from his mother. He views their relationship as a rival-sibling one, not a mother-daughter one. Afraid that the stronger may destroy the weaker, he copes in the best way that he can. Whether the choice is the most advantageous is difficult for the reader to discern. Once again, the sequence of events is relayed in elliptical passages of memory—neatly imprinted with external images, verbal editing, and thought organization. One of Chessie’s disruptive behavior patterns reminds him of another, both of which are told to the reader in neat packages. We feel like the blot-head drawings on the walls of Chessie’s studio; we receive what the character chooses to give in layered patterns of the recent and not so recent past.

Like both James and Ray, Charles has chosen medicine as his field of study, and so has his brother, Royal. It is Royal who bandages up Chessie’s wrist wounds after her attempted suicide. Although he may go into psychology, at his young age he can only treat her externally from his own black medicine bag. He is not directly involved in a cyclical familial pattern since he has no prototype in Lexie’s family; however, he does have one in another house. The Kellihys, who live next door, have a little girl named Dodo. Royal is paid fifty cents by the maid to bathe the child, just as another little child was given a smaller amount to bathe Dodo’s aunt. Royal uses this job as a means of studying anatomy and makes drawings of the little girl’s private parts. His other medical studies are quite peculiar, also. From Royal’s vantage, the reader learns that Chessie and Lexie are so closely connected that even their menstrual cycles occur at the same time; Royal knows; he observes.


(The entire section is 2161 words.)