Terms of Endearment

by Larry McMurtry

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1010

Aurora Greenway, a selfish, fanciful widow, spends much of her rather empty life talking on the telephone to her daughter, Emma. They talk nearly every morning at seven-thirty (often to Emma’s chagrin—unlike her mother, she is not an early riser), and it is around their problematic relationship that the novel is built. Terms of Endearment is divided into two books of unequal length: The first, longer book covers a single year (1962) in the life of Aurora Greenway; the second book, a fraction the length of the first, is devoted to the last five years (1971-1976) of Emma’s short life. This disproportionate division reflects the central tragedy of the novel: Emma has always lived in her mother’s shadow, has never lived up to the older woman’s expectations. The brief final section of the novel is as stunted and formless as Emma’s self-esteem.

Since she has been left financially independent by a shadowy, seldom-mentioned husband, Aurora Greenway has little to do with her days except receive and reject her various suitors, and much of the first part of the novel is devoted to her seriocomic relationships with men. She is proud of the fact that most men are terrified of her exacting standards and her erratic behavior. She plays one beau off against another, juggling luncheon and dinner dates with great virtuosity and actively encouraging jealousy among her suitors. When one man is deemed too dull or too overbearing, he is dropped and soon replaced by a new, more pliant subject. This rather reckless game is Aurora’s method of coping with widowhood; her indolent though well-mannered husband, Rudyard, has been dead for three years when the novel opens. Her elegant house in the River Oaks section of Houston is filled with beautiful objects, her closets with expensive clothes. Her existence is diverting and leisurely but ultimately unfulfilling.

In stark contrast to her mother’s frivolous, self-absorbed life is Emma’s own. When the novel opens, Emma has been married for two years to “Flap” Horton, a college English major who can provide her with no better a residence than a garage apartment. The marriage is unsatisfying on every level: The couple’s sex life is perfunctory and unimaginative, and their conversations frequently end in violent but comic confrontations. Aurora is probably correct in her assessment that Emma has married badly. Only two years into the marriage, Flap’s interest in his wife is waning, and they are expecting their first child (it is born at the close of the first book). Emma spends her days reading the newspaper classified ads, seeing her beautiful and self-assured friend Patsy Clark, and talking on the telephone with her alternately judgmental and solipsistic mother.

Since the novel has no consistent point of view, McMurtry is able to move easily in and out of his characters’ consciousnesses; thus, what would pass for subplots in other novels will receive much attention in Terms of Endearment. Much of the first book, for example, is devoted to Rosie Dunlup, Aurora’s hapless maid of twenty-two years, whose unexciting marriage parallels both Aurora’s and Emma’s lack of fulfillment. Royce, Rosie’s truck-driver husband and the father of her seven children, is a philanderer with a fondness for low-life bars and disreputable women. During the course of the first book, Rosie finds out about her husband’s secret life. Their tragicomic separations and reconciliations are conducted in the lower-middle-class world of country and western dance halls and drive-ins, a world far removed from Aurora’s River Oaks domain. Rosie is more than a servant, and the bond between the Greenway women and their maid is strong, though mostly unarticulated.

Toward the end of the first book, Aurora experiences a mid-life crisis of sorts. Now a grandmother (Emma’s first child, Thomas, has been born), she sets about acclimating her chosen mate, sixty-seven-year-old General Hector Scott, to her other suitors, having no intention of dropping them altogether. Unable to find the perfect man, Aurora decides to make do with many, and by the end of the first book she has somewhat come to terms with the compromises with which she must live out her days.

Emma’s sad story comprises the brief second book, which opens in 1971 in Des Moines, where Flap has taken a job as a college English instructor. Flap, doomed to a life of academic mediocrity, has long since lost interest in his wife, and both of them have started having affairs. They are responsible, if lackluster, parents to their two sons, Tommy and Teddy; a third child, Melanie, is born soon after the family moves to Kearney, Nebraska, where Flap becomes a department head.

Emma’s life as a faculty wife is bleak. She has few friends, and what time she has away from her children she spends with a string of unremarkable lovers. Unlike her mother’s, Emma’s romantic involvements are highly physical but essentially unrewarding. Never prey to the romantic self-delusion that sustains Aurora, Emma has long since given up on happiness. She is hard-pressed to find even momentary diversion in her joyless and aimless life.

The novel’s climax occurs when it is discovered that Emma has an incurable form of cancer. Her impending death transforms her into the kind of catalyst she has never been in life: Aurora, Rosie, General Scott, and Aurora’s failed suitor Vernon Dalhart arrive from Houston to be at Emma’s bedside in Omaha; her friend Patsy leaves her fairy-tale life in Hollywood to watch Emma die. Heavily sedated, Emma lies dying for months, experiencing a sort of death-in-life that is really no more than an intensification of the life that she has led for years. She accepts death with few regrets, having long given up on life. Aurora’s reaction to her daughter’s death is notably unsentimental. Standing dry-eyed at Emma’s graveside, she turns to Patsy and says, “There’s no point in us standing here like bookends, my dear,” thus having, as usual, the last word.

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