by Linda Taylor
I can’t help it. When I read a book, I long to see characters grow and change. I long to see them overcome. Become better. Resolve a problem. Come out at the end (of the book or of their lives—maybe both) as better people.
I wanted that for Mrs. Bridge. In the novel by that name, by Evan S. Connell, I am invited to step into the life of this character and, through 117 vignettes, follow her for more than two decades. I watch her start out as a feisty young woman who “could get along very nicely without a husband” (1) to a woman who, on the last page, is stuck in her car, halfway out of her garage, alone, with no one hearing her call out for help—“until she could attract someone’s attention, she was trapped” (240).
She disappointed me. I had such high hopes for her.
For Cathy Day’s class, I began my reverse storyboard. Instead of separating each of the 117 vignettes, I used my index cards to combine sets of stories. As I read, I discovered that many of the stories seemed to come in sets of two or three, with a tell-tale segue, such as “not long after” (96) or “the next night” (184), or the continuation of a theme or person from the previous vignette. I pulled these together on my cards, reaching for a new card when a story arc very obviously changed. The flow of characters coming and going from the story still allowed for sections on average of about two or three vignettes per card.
I began to notice what happened to Mrs. Bridge as a result of each set of vignettes. She often tried to do something, to change, to better herself, only to slide back into a life that seemed to circle and circle instead of moving forward.
Why? I asked myself.
That’s when I hit vignette 68, “Tornado at the Club.” As we watched Mrs. Bridge stay at the table with her husband as the rest of the diners run for safety to the basement, we read, “It did not occur to Mrs. Bridge to leave her husband and run to the basement. She had been brought up to believe without question that when a woman married she was married for the rest of her life and was meant to remain with her husband wherever he was, and under all circumstances, unless he directed her otherwise” (145). Even in a tornado?
Suddenly I understood her. Why couldn’t she move forward in her life? Her husband, who did not figure prominently in the story up to this point, was always like that stormy weather on the horizon. He was the tornado that pulled her into an endless circle and she spun around him for her entire life. (I don’t think he’s a bad guy—I need to read Mr. Bridge to find out. But he was, by virtue of being a man in this time period, very much in charge of all that occurred in his family’s life.) Her lifestyle and friendships were determined by his standing. They gave a party, “not because they wanted to, but because it was time” (79), she had guest towels that no one ever used because “that was what everyone did” (26). Each person she met made her feel like she needed to do a little something more to better herself, to fit in: Grace Barron had traveled and talked about art and politics, causing Mrs. Bridge to feel “inadequate and confused” (36). Result? In the very next vignette she was trying to learn Spanish. We discover later that these records found their way into a closet. In vignettes 31–33, we segue from Mrs. Porter trying to hire Harriet away, to the Porters being fellow church attenders, to Dr. Foster, the pastor of that church, to Mrs. Bridge deciding she needed to better her vocabulary and so purchasing a book to do just that. When it didn’t seem to work, away it went to the shelf. She tried painting. She quit after a few lessons.
Mrs. Bridge, who are you? She didn’t know that herself. Instead, she kept up appearances. She tore down her son’s glorious tower because “people were beginning to wonder” (68), thereby changing her relationship with her son Douglas forever.
Thus, when I created my storyboard, I couldn’t bear to put the vignettes in a row moving across a line, which means moving forward. I chose instead to create a “tornado” of sorts, with the center story being vignette 68. All of Mrs. Bridge’s relationships with her friends (highlighted yellow) and children (highlighted green) swirl around but she never seems to move forward. The children do get away in some ways, so their cards start to move off the bulletin board. The random expectations of her life in her community (highlighted pink) result in boredom and lack of purpose. These highlight for me what happens when a person circles and circles and circles and goes nowhere.
And what happens when the vortex is gone? When Mr. Bridge dies? Mrs. Bridge is in a car, stuck in her garage, calling out to the world, “Hello?”
Perhaps that’s why the book resonates with so many readers still today. Maybe it’s too much like real life. Many of us are stuck in our own loops—our own tornadoes—circling, swirling. It may not be around a domineering person. Maybe it’s around a regret, a grudge, a sorrow, a habit. Can we break free? Can we get away? Can we, by the end, be better people?