The Mr Bennett of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell’s ‘Mr Bridge’, pt 1

(There’s so much to say about Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge that I’m going to break this post up into two parts.)

Last month I wrote about Connell’s 1959 novel Mrs Bridge (link here), which relates in 117 short chapters the quietly despondent, unreflecting but unfulfilled life of its bourgeoise protagonist, who I likened to Mme Bovary. Her husband is barely present. Now I turn my attention to Mr Bridge, published a decade later, in which her husband fills every chapter. In a novel that’s at times redolent of bleak existential despair, it’s also shot through with wit and humour.

Walter Bridge is a workaholic, a successful Kansas City lawyer. In her introduction to the 2012 PMC edition Lionel Shriver aptly describes him as a ‘stiff, upright, undemonstrative family man’ who is ‘staid’ and ‘outwardly wholesome’. Beneath this veneer of soap opera stereotypical American fatherhood – the respectable, wise and inspirational paterfamilias – is a complex, layered character as ‘insidiously bleak’ and ultimately lonely as his desperate housewife spouse. He reminds Shriver of her grandfather; I’m reminded of my father, a man of similarly deluded rectitude. And of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice: a wry patriarch with a wife whose silliness he’s largely responsible for (reflecting gender roles of the times), offspring whose behaviour confounds and challenges his complacency, and who has a distorted, inflated opinion of his own superiority.

Like his wife Mr Bridge drifts through life in myopic bafflement, constrained as she is by resolute belief in conventional values (domestic, social, sexual and cultural) of middle-class conformity. Furthermore he has a strong conviction that he’s irrefutably right about such things:

He wished to impress upon his son three things which he felt he had himself achieved: financial security, independence, and self-respect. In his mind these were of supreme importance.

This is a longer novel than Mrs Bridge, and is similar in approach: in 141 vignettes a collage or fragmented narrative is constructed of disparate scenes in Walter’s life which individually are mostly superficially trivial, but which collectively represent a nuanced, tragi-comical portrait of a conflicted, flawed man often seen to be as anxious and unfulfilled as his wife. I found it less successful than the earlier book, and felt that it could have been improved with some editing.

Many chapters revisit scenes and themes from Mrs Bridge: the rapid passage of time, and a commensurate sense of wasted life, for example:

The years were falling over like ducks in a shooting gallery, and it seemed to Mr Bridge that he had scarcely taken aim at one when it disappeared. Now another year was all but gone. However, it had been a good year. He was not dissatisfied. He had worked hard, harder than most men…He was acquiring more than he needed, quite a lot more. And yet most important was the happiness he sensed around him. He believed that his wife was happy and the children also, and because of this he felt their happiness within himself. [ch. 25]

This typifies Connell’s method in both novels. In something approaching free indirect style we seem to hear Mr Bridge’s voice or thoughts here, mediated through an almost effaced narrator. The opening sentence there is perhaps free indirect thought: it’s Mr Bridge’s syntax and idiom, with the clichéd image reflecting his limited cognitive/emotional range. He demonstrates his sadly deluded belief that material comfort equates with emotional fulfilment.  In the final sentence of this extract the narrator’s perspective shifts: no doubt Mr Bridge did complacently believe in his wife’s happiness, but the syntax now reflects his doubts about this conviction, and there’s the ironic gap between his own view and that of the reader that we noted in Mrs Bridge. That closing sentence demonstrates his inability to feel deeply or express the feelings he does have: his happiness is vicarious. This is his problem throughout the novel.

The opening chapter primes us for this paradox. On one level he genuinely loves his wife:

Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her. She would like to hear this, he was sure, but he did not know how to tell her…he could think of nothing appropriate.

 

So the years passed…and eventually Mr Bridge decided that his wife should expect nothing more of him. After all, he was an attorney rather than a poet; he could never pretend to be what he was not.

Once again Connell’s narrative focus here is on Mr Bridge’s thoughts, and his reluctance to understand or transcend his emotional torpor. When his wife has one of her periodic, and to him, inexplicable meltdowns, in a chapter called ‘You don’t love me’, she insists out of the blue on a divorce. ‘My life has been spent waiting on you and the children. None of you has been aware of me, but that’s all right. I realize you’ve written me off.’

The chapter closes with another visit inside Mr Bridge’s mind:

She never explained what he had done wrong, and after thinking quite a lot about this incomprehensible fit of hysteria he decided the best procedure was to ignore it.

This is his default response to life’s puzzles. Ironically this scene takes place immediately after an often-quoted chapter in which he contemplates his family chattering in the warm spring evening on the porch:

As he listened to their voices and to the seasonal music of the insects the problems which had troubled him during the day did not seem important, and he reflected that he had practically everything he ever wanted.

His wife’s ‘hysterical’ outburst indicates his failure to empathise with that family. He’s deluded himself that by providing for them materially he’s done his job. This suffices for him, and he’s incapable of comprehending why that isn’t sufficient for them. His birthday presents to them of stocks and dividends is his way of showing his love, and he doesn’t understand that this is perceived by them as unreflecting coldness in him. On the occasions like this when his complacency is challenged, he quietly dismisses the moment and evades emotional commitment. In ch. 60 when his wife demands to know if he loves her, his response is ‘bewildered’, and he finds the conversation ‘embarrassing’.

Numerous chapters indicate his bigotry, racism, homophobia and snobbery, his rigid belief in bourgeois values and conservative politics. So he refuses to give alms to beggars, and hates people who get into debt (he’s often angry about such ‘deadbeats’). ‘He disliked weakness’, is his ‘disgusted’ reaction to the children’s pet rabbit dying of terror when attacked by a dog. He is frequently portrayed as ‘exasperated’ or annoyed by what he perceives as the inability of others to conform to his own strict codes of conduct. He ‘hates’ a ‘bawdy story’ or swearing, but shows barely concealed admiration for Hitler and the rising Nazi powers in Europe. He thinks modern art is ‘junk’, and modern writers peddle filth. He feels ‘provoked’ by such subversions of convention.

He’s full of contradictions, though, and this capacity to show something other than bigotry enables us to find sympathy for his otherwise unattractive nature. Several chapters display his undeniably racist views, yet he scolds his daughter for being high-handed with their black housekeeper. He’s clearly anti-semitic, yet is horrified when his elder daughter Ruth accuses him of being prejudiced (‘you’re so hard and so cold and so humorless’, she complains). Then he writes her a long letter outlining how he’s helped Jewish friends. Her response is the same bafflement he experiences when his family behave unaccountably: ‘Then you do a thing like this. And for a Jew.’ He can’t understand what she means, especially when she goes on to tell him he’s treated his family ‘like strangers’: ‘Dr Sauer said you were a consummate Puritan’, she says, but he doesn’t ‘understand’. Instead we’re told ‘He was embarrassed and puzzled.’ He’s like this too when he contemplates his inability to ‘share’ himself with his family by telling them about his work. There’s ‘nothing to discuss’, he concludes, preferring his hermetically sealed solitude.

And when he writes the letter to try to explain to Ruth that he was shocked that she thought him prejudiced, he’s as incapable of expressing what he really feels to her as he was in the opening chapter about his love for his wife. The nearest he can get to expressing this love is to tell her the ‘good news’ about her stocks increasing in value; he takes his usual position of substituting material wealth for emotional investment:

It was not all he wished to say, but he felt he had clarified his position…He thought she would understand.

I shall round off this first post on Mr Bridge by examining two crucial scenes which could not have featured in Mrs Bridge, but which shed light on Connell’s method and narrative acuity. It’s a counterpart to the chapter in the earlier novel where Mrs Bridge’s unconventional, unhappy friend Grace Barron (‘barren’?) expresses her despair and boredom in ways that Mrs Bridge finds both familiar but also frightening. Both scenes present Mr Bridge’s awkward responses to his wife’s friend and her challenging ways.

In ch. 99 he is unable to avoid Grace and joins her at her coffee-shop table. She shows him the jade pig she’d just bought at auction. He’s pompous and sanctimonious about her being ‘stung’ and can’t understand (yet again!) why anyone would want it. He just hopes it’s worth it.

‘You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,’ she said. ‘I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?’

 

‘I’d have to think about it,’ he smiled, and picked up the menu…

The subject, for him, is thereby closed, for he clearly does not intend thinking about it; we’ve seen how he habitually avoids considering troublesome topics like this. Yet she’s just provided one of the few instances in the novel where we’re told exactly what Mr Bridge is. It’s to Connell’s credit that he always makes his readers work out what could be the significance of each chapter’s vignette; this time he skilfully uses the dialogue of a perceptive but damaged outsider to provide a rare insight.

She goes on to call him ‘a nineteenth-century figure’; she means he’s paralysed by his sense of propriety. As ever, Connell takes us into Mr Bridge’s mind:

This was the sort of remark she made [free indirect thought again], affectionate and yet insulting. He did not like it…She was a lost, unhappy little woman. He thought he should feel a sense of pity, but he did not. She jeered at too many things.

That Mr Bridge should think in this dismissively patronising way is indicative of his usual conflation of sympathy (he recognises her grudging affection for him) and self-righteous indignation. As a jeerer at everything he disapproves of, the irony and hypocrisy he emanates here are palpable.

When Grace goes on to goad him about his political views he’s stung into declaring a preference for Nazism to Communism, then refuses to engage further. She becomes upset, and complains that her banker husband won’t talk to her either:

‘He says I’m a woman and women have no grasp of politics. Nobody wants to talk to me. I feel like I’m living on an island.’

 

‘What sort of talk is that,’ he said with a deprecatory expression, and crooked a finger at the waitress…

She’s beginning to sound like his wife, and his instinctive response is to ignore or dismiss such talk. As the chapter closes she annoys him by suggesting that a Jewish financier he dislikes might become his neighbour; this

enraged him, but he was careful to hide his anger…He did not like the feeling that swept through him, or the urge to say aloud that he approved of the pogrom in Germany.

 

‘You really are, aren’t you,’ she said as though she could read his mind. ‘I always suspected it.’ And she began to cry.

It’s one of the most powerfully enigmatic and moving moments in the novel.

And it’s followed by another near the novel’s end, when Mr Bridge hears Grace has killed herself.

The idea of suicide exasperated him. Now her children must suffer…She had shown her children how little they meant…He knew he had been correct to feel nothing at the news of her death. What she had done was cowardly. What such a woman deserved was scorn and contempt.

This is surely Mr Bridge’s most despicable stream of thought in the novel. But we don’t have to like a character to admire the text, and what Connell is doing here is brilliantly realised. Just as Grace seemed to have briefly penetrated his stalwart emotional defences and his smug sense of superiority, enabling him to release his gentler inner self, she closes the metaphorical door she’d mentioned, leaving him secure in his self-satisfaction. He’s monstrous, but as vulnerable in his own immutable, emotionally stunted way as his wife. In that sense he’s possibly a more tragic figure.

Where Mr Bridge differs most interestingly from Mrs Bridge is in its protagonist’s unsettling relationships with his children, especially Ruth, and in his attitudes to sexuality. I shall focus on these (potentially controversial) aspects of the novel next time.

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