Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The early novels of May Sarton were set in Europe or the British Isles, with her second novel being set in Belgium, the land of her birth. These novels reflect her interest in the impact of the Old World on the New. Some of the themes which Sarton continues to develop in her writing are apparent in these early books. How love, suffering, marriage, and family affect the individual are critical points for study in her fiction.

Beginning with Faithful Are the Wounds (1955), Sarton turned increasingly to New England as a setting for her fiction. This academic novel centers on Edward Cavan, a professor of American literature who commits suicide. (Cavan was based in part on the distinguished scholar and Harvard professor F. O. Matthiessen, who committed suicide in 1950.) Loneliness and the cost of repressed emotion are important themes developed in this work, and they are important in The Small Room as well, the second book in which Sarton makes use of the academic world.

Frequently Sarton uses intelligent professional women as central characters in her fiction. In The Small Room, the main characters are women whose struggles in the academic world are treated with dignity and understanding. Of this book, Virgilia Petersen says, “a more eloquent appraisal of teaching it would be hard to find.” Sarton, who did not attend college, draws upon her experiences teaching in such institutions as Harvard and Wellesley, where she...

(The entire section is 416 words.)