Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686
With chapters on the theater and on key events in her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, Julia, and others, Hellman perfects the form of the short memoir. An Unfinished Woman had made sporadic references to the unreliability of memory and to how, over time, the imagination works over the past, transforming it into emblems of the self. By choosing the painter’s term “pentimento” as a title, Hellman stresses how important it is for her readers to see that she is writing from the point of view of the present and is “repenting”—that is, changing in words the scenes she remembers, finding a deeper meaning in them, and setting them in a new context—much as a painter may paint over a scene or a figure on a canvas, having changed his or her mind about how it should be depicted.
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Two of Hellman’s character portraits, “Bethe” and “Willy,” are about relatives whose stories help Hellman focus on her own development. Bethe has come to the United States from Germany, destined to be the bride in an arranged marriage, but she leaves her feckless husband for a passionate affair with another man, an Italian with underworld connections. Although Bethe’s behavior is condemned by Hellman’s family, Hellman’s two aunts never quite abandon Bethe, and Hellman depicts herself as an adolescent who is fascinated by Bethe’s sexuality and her willingness to sacrifice everything for the man she loves. Not so much a celebration of romantic love as it is confirmation of a woman’s right to live as she likes, “Bethe” is clearly emblematic of Hellman’s own life—of her leaving her husband for Hammett and her willingness to cope with her family’s disapproval.
Similarly, Willy, Hellman’s extravagant and sexually attractive uncle, represents the type of man she would often be drawn toward in later life. Willy is a venture capitalist, an independent operator who never quite fits in with his wife’s wealthy family. He is a man who makes and loses his fortune several times, a man with mistresses and hearty appetites, who almost persuades a grown-up Hellman to accompany him on one of his expeditions abroad. His generosity and flair make him an enviable alternative to the gross competitiveness of her mother’s family, who have made Hellman feel small—especially after her father’s failure in business.
Undoubtedly, the most riveting story in Pentimento is “Julia.” She is Hellman’s darling childhood friend, the political activist from a wealthy family who spurns an easy life, earns a medical degree at the University of Oxford, and (studying with Sigmund Freud in Vienna) becomes involved in the anti-Fascist movement. Julia is beautiful, courageous, and uncompromising—in short, everything that Hellman deems heroic and attractive in an individual. Not seeing herself as a heroine, Hellman nevertheless allows herself to be coaxed by Julia into a scheme of transporting money across Germany for the anti-Fascist forces.
It is a moving story. Hellman admits at its beginning that her memory is perfectly capable of playing her false, but she says that in the case of Julia she is absolutely confident of what she remembers. As the most compelling part of Pentimento, it is not surprising that “Julia” became a motion picture (in 1977), with Vanessa Redgrave as the stalwart Julia and Jane Fonda as Hellman. The remarkable friendship between two women, the hazards of their meeting in Germany, and Hellman’s later, desperate attempt to find Julia’s child after the war make for a highly charged narrative of intrigue and romance that lends itself well to the screen.
As do other parts of Hellman’s memoirs, “Julia” has internal inconsistencies and improbabilities. Critics have pointed out discrepancies in dates and have been unable to verify the basic facts of Hellman’s purportedly true story. In the very title of Pentimento, Hellman seems to imply that there is as much art as there is fact in her narrative. Because of the way she romanticized her own part in history, it was perhaps inevitable that her critics should seek to diminish her influence.