The central focus of Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is the protagonist’s uncertainty about her own identity and about the meaning and purpose of her life. The first sentences of the book, linked to the epigraph from Walt Whitman, establish this emphasis: “Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her.” In her own eyes, and in those of the narrator of Connell’s novel, from the start of the book she is “Mrs.” Bridge, wife of the successful lawyer Walter Bridge, mother of his three children—Ruth, Carolyn, and Douglas Bridge—and a typical female member of her upper-middle-class circle in Kansas City, Missouri. Depending for her identity upon the stability of the social milieu in which she lives, Mrs. Bridge, as her way of life and the values of her class come under fire in the two decades before World War II, experiences boredom, a sense of purposelessness, and eventually even a vaguely terrifying sense of isolation.
Covering a period from the early 1920’s to the early 1940’s, with an emphasis on the last ten years of this period, Mrs. Bridge presents the action as a series of 117 episodes from the life of the title character and not as a unified, symmetrical plot. Connell’s introduction of Mrs. Bridge compresses her first thirty-five years of life into the three pages of the first two episodes, and in it he establishes both her utter conventionality and her disillusionment with her life. Venturing to express to her young husband her own desire for sex, she is ignored: “This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.” As a young mother, she is frustrated in her expectation that her children, like her, should go through life with an unimpaired set of conventional values. She is shocked when Ruth, as a very small child, strips off her bathing suit and parades around the neighborhood swimming pool. She is annoyed when Doug insists on using the guest towels in the bathroom, towels which her guests are sufficiently well-bred not to use; she is antagonistic when Carolyn chooses Alice Jones, the daughter of the black gardener working next door, as a Saturday morning playmate. In episode after episode, Mrs. Bridge confronts evidence of the inadequacy of conventional responses to life. Her friend Grace Barron, similarly restless and dissatisfied, exhibits signs of depression and by the end of the novel commits suicide. Mabel Ong, the mannish Kansas City clubwoman, decides to seek help from a therapist. Dr. Foster, Mrs. Bridge’s minister, becomes hysterical when trapped in a crowded elevator and pushes and claws his way out, showing no concern for the safety of anybody except himself.
As they mature, Mrs. Bridge’s children make sexual and marital choices which do not meet her approval. Ruth is not attracted to the clean-cut young sons of her mother’s friends; the young men who telephone her seem always to have foreign names and to speak in rough, uncultured voices. In high school, Doug is attracted to Paquita de las Torres, whose sister is a burlesque dancer; the girl’s “hairy arms and rancid odor were almost too much for Mrs. Bridge to bear.” Carolyn enrolls at the University of Kansas in Lawrence but drops out of school to marry Gil Davis, the son of a plumber, and to settle in a Parallel, Kansas, neighborhood into which black families are moving. Mrs. Bridge reflects that, except for her housekeeper Harriet, and the laundress,...
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Beulah Mae, she “had never known any Negroes socially; not that she avoided it, just that there weren’t any in the neighborhood, or at the country club, or in the Auxiliary. There just weren’t any for her to meet, that was all.” The social dynamics of the world are changing, and reluctantly Mrs. Bridge finds herself accepting behavior and attitudes that she once would have rejected.
Her husband, Walter, remains the one constant in her life, but she does not derive much comfort from his rigid orthodoxy. Unlike his wife, he never questions the rightness of his positions; he uses them to keep the world, including Mrs. Bridge, at arm’s length. It is characteristic that he alone ignores the danger posed by an approaching tornado and remains at his table at the country club, Mrs. Bridge dutifully beside him, when everybody else in the building has evacuated to the basement. Mr. Bridge is committed to his career and to the aggressive making of money; therefore, he responds to Gil Davis’s frontal assault in the office and accepts Carolyn’s engagement, and her marriage, to an otherwise unsuitable young man. He substitutes expensive gifts for his own presence in the lives of his wife and children. Mrs. Bridge finds these gifts embarrassing: “She was conscious of people on the street staring at her when, wrapped in ermine and driving the Lincoln, she started off to a party at the country club.” Even the trip to Europe which he gives her as a birthday gift, the fulfillment of a promise made when they were engaged, leads Mrs. Bridge to realize that she does not know Walter’s real personality. In her attempts to get closer to him, she becomes increasingly conscious of her isolation.
Mrs. Bridge reaches its thematic climax in the final episode, in which, with Mr. Bridge dead and her children out of the house, Connell’s protagonist confronts the emptiness of her life. She has had intimations of it before. One night, seated at her dressing table and spreading cold cream on her face before going to bed, Mrs. Bridge realizes that “she was disappearing into white, sweetly scented anonymity.” She is tempted to try psychotherapy, as did her friend Mabel Ong, but the memory of Mr. Bridge’s views on the subject dissuades her. In the final episode of the novel, she backs her old Lincoln out of the garage, stalls the engine, and finds herself unable to open the doors because of the walls on either side. She blows the horn, taps on the window, and calls out, “but no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.” She is absolutely alone, and that is where Connell leaves her.