Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Pentimento Analysis

Like Hellman’s later Scoundrel Time (1976) and Maybe (1980), Pentimento is perhaps not so much an autobiography as a commentary on autobiography. Highly and deliberately subjective, foggy in regard to details, the seven essays in the book constantly call attention to their own fragmentation. Hellman catches herself confusing one meeting with another that came much later, and she shares this confusion with the reader. Throughout the book, she reminds the reader that objective documentation of the past is hard to come by: Diary notes are sketchy and vague, letters are misplaced or, when found, frequently unreliable. People themselves, blinded by their own experiences and prejudices, are notoriously unreliable witnesses, capable of presenting only distorted evidence. Like her fellow playwright Tennessee Williams’ Memoirs (1975), Hellman’s book thus reminds the reader not only of the narrator’s own unreliability but also of the limits of autobiography itself, and, by extension, of the unreliability of human memory.

Indeed, most of the characters in the book seem to be people who, having once moved quickly through Hellman’s life, now seem to deserve greater consideration than they have previously received. Now, in old age, the author seems to be “replacing,” as the preface says, “the old conception” with “a later choice.” Each character’s importance to Hellman’s life seems unquestionable, though Hellman’s realization of his or her importance has come about only belatedly. Bethe, for example, appears to the older Hellman as the woman who gave the younger Hellman the courage to live with a man to whom she was not married; the adolescent Hellman depicted in the story, however, knows only that she is obsessed with the unremarkable Bethe, visits her frequently against her family’s will, but is able to express her fascination only haltingly and cryptically. Willy symbolizes much the same kind of sexual freedom—the story contains strong hints that he and the young Hellman had a sexual relationship—but is also seen by the younger Hellman as a strong corrective to the unimaginative avarice of her mother’s family (the same clan on whom the villainous Hubbards are based in Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes). No character in the book, however, receives the kind of unreserved praise that Julia does. Born to extreme wealth and privilege, gifted with great beauty and a superior intellect, Julia nevertheless sacrifices her birthright and risks her life to smuggle political refugees out of Adolf Hitler’s Europe. The story centers on Julia’s...

(The entire section is 1071 words.)