Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125

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Peyton Place generated controversy about its sexual themes, controversy that one would have expected in the staid 1950’s. A number of New England communities banned the novel after its publication in 1956, and while many small-town newspapers condemned its content, such critiques may have been less in reaction to the salacious content of the novel than motivated by fear about the dialogue its revelations might provoke. The publicity helped the novel sell sixty thousand copies in ten days, a record at the time, and it topped The New York Times best-seller list for over a year. A popular film adaptation, directed by Mark Robson and starring Lana Turner, was released in 1957. A hastily written sequel, Return to Peyton Place (1957), was followed by a film adaptation of its own in 1961. A nighttime television serial loosely based on the novel’s characters was broadcast from 1964 to 1969.

Grace Metalious approached six publishing houses before Julian Messner’s wife, Kitty, helped convince him to publish the novel. Kitty Messner also helped edit the novel, excising passages she felt were too romantic and insisting that Metalious make Lucas Cross a stepfather, not a father, to Selena. Metalious was angered by that change in particular, believing it diminished Selena’s tragedy.

Emily Toth, author of a Metalious biography, believes that most of Kitty’s recommendations improved the novel’s style but diminished the emphasis on Allison as a writer. Perhaps Messner wished to forestall the inevitable parallels between Metalious and her heroine that emerged after the novel’s publication. While Metalious always insisted that the novel was fiction, not autobiography, a number of its plots were rooted in reality. Most famously, Selena’s murder of Lucas is likely based upon an actual patricide in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. As speculation about Metalious’s source material swirled and more libraries banned the novel for its sensational content, sales exploded.

Despite the condemnation and censorship, the novel earned the praise of a number of literary critics, particularly for its efforts to undermine assumptions about propriety. In The New York Times Book Review, Carlos Baker compared Metalious to Sinclair Lewis, a fellow rebel against small-town hypocrisy. Other critics discussed the ways in which the author’s passionate opening description of Indian summer offered a subversion of the rather stolid portrayals of New England that dominated American conceptions of the region, a holdover from the Puritan era. More important, though, the novel’s opening imagery invokes feminine power, both sexual and psychological, and intimates the tenuous nature of the control held by patriarchal institutions in Peyton Place.

While defenders and detractors vigorously debated the value of Peyton Place in the years immediately after its publication, the novel has long suffered from neglect. A year after Metalious’s untimely death, her husband and June O’Shea published The Girl from Peyton Place (1965), which remained the only biography of the author until Toth published Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious in 1981. Two literary critics, Madonne Miner and Ruth Pirsig Wood, have analyzed the novel along with other examples of best-selling women’s fiction, but aside from Toth’s biography, no book-length evaluations of the author’s four novels have been written.

The 1999 republication of the novel by Northeastern University Press and, more particular, Ardis Cameron’s introduction to the edition provided a timely reminder about the significance of the novel’s primary theme, society’s need to define appropriate notions of womanhood and to condemn women who do not conform to the ideal. The novel’s dissection of perversions and repressions offers insight into two crucial issues about American womanhood in the 1950’s: the impact of Sigmund Freud’s theories of motherhood and sexual deviance on women struggling to find an identity for themselves in a culture that cherished normalcy, and postwar anxieties about the return of women to the domestic sphere after a period of public independence. The novel’s engagement with issues such as incest, spousal abuse, and women’s sexual desires helped pave the way for Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking feminist critique of patriarchal culture in The Feminine Mystique (1963).

A telling indication of the growing interest in Freudian psychoanalysis in the United States and the fears about bad mothering that it created is the prevalence of psychoanalytic discourse in the popular culture of the 1940’s. Numerous novels and films directed at a female audience, such as the films Now, Voyager (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945), explored maternal conflicts within a psychoanalytic framework. Metalious entered this debate after ideas about womanhood were reshaped by popular psychological writings about feminine neuroses that emerged at the start of World War II. During and after the war, rhetoric about motherhood took a decided turn for the worse.

Perhaps the influence of Freud, the growing literature on female sexual behavior, the fears about women who entered the workforce while men fought, or a general malaise imposed by the horrors of the war affected the language of writers such as Philip Wylie, whose antimother rhetoric in Generation of Vipers (1942) sounded the keynote for the era. In 1947, Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham’s Modern Woman: The Lost Sex picked up where had Wylie left off, and David Levy’s psychological case studies in Maternal Overprotection (1943) were remarkably similar to the portraits of obsessive motherhood found in the era’s popular films. These three books influenced the emerging portraits of the obsessive mother and frigid woman that Metalious revisited in her novel.

Ruth Pirsig Wood argues that the fates of Selena and Allison assure readers that they will be rewarded if they play by society’s rules. However, Metalious may be suggesting otherwise. Despite the fact that many literary critics still perceive popular fiction as the upholder of regressive ideologies, Metalious effectively used the framework of popular fiction to confront stereotypes about women and motherhood and contributed to the debate about women’s dissatisfactions that culminated in second-wave feminism.

The characters of Peyton Place reflect the ways in which popular psychological and sexual theories construct an idea of motherhood that often intersects with deviance, putting women into impossible positions. Instead of indicting her female characters who struggle, often unsuccessfully, to conform to society’s rigid rules, Metalious instead indicts a community that refuses to see these women and their ambitions and needs sympathetically. The representative of concerned paternalism, the ever-watchful Dr. Swain, is not capable of single-handedly saving Peyton Place from those bent on destroying the women who do not conform. Portraying the types of women accused of poor mothering by 1940’s popular psychologists, Metalious demonstrates that it is constraints of gender and class, as well as the repression of sexual desire, that create the hellish America painted by those such as Wylie, not female ambition or the avoidance of acceptable feminine roles.