Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater

In honor of finding a copy of this book in a thrift store 15 years too late, here are some notes I took on The Pumpkin Eater when I read a blurry photocopy for a seminar when I was in grad school. Unfortunately they’re pretty useless if you haven’t read the book recently; I didn’t bother to contextualize anything back then.

The Pumpkin Eater

Much of this novel seems to dwell on pointlessness and inevitability, and I suppose these two ideas lend themselves easily to contemplation of atomic bombs. But the narrator doesn’t seem to have that on her mind here, she seems to think of the inevitability and pointlessness of love, which is apparently doomed to break down into meaningless fights and reconciliations. The narrator realizes that love will not ward off evil — that it is, in fact, the typical impetus for evil.

Giles is a case in point. He seems fairly decent, someone who is not dangerously self-involved, or actively malicious. He never lost his temper. He had been tolerant. But his love for the narrator taught him how to hate, and that hatred led to his futile attempts at subterfuge, his lying to Jake and Mrs. Armitage. His fruitless love for her humiliated and cheapened him just as her love for Jake ruined her. The novel suggests that it is beside the point to ask why they love only where their love breeds self-destruction. That sort of love is inevitable; only that sort of love is authentic.

The dust seems an apt metaphor — inevitable, unpreventable. Eventually it becomes pointless to worry over it; one either chooses to continue to sweep it away continually, or one lets it settle thickly over everything. Time passes in the way that dust settles, creating pointless nuisances and useless squabbles. Or rather, life passes this way when you are as passive and nebulous as the narrator. As she relates toward the end, hers was not the mind that could fashion out a plan, that could conceive of reasons for planning. In another passage, she had already explained to Giles that reasons, whatever they were, seemed insufficient. “Reasons don’t have consequences, only actions.” In a sense this is true, but in other sense, it is completely false.

It presumes that one can only be acted upon, that one cannot be decisive. Why are women unable to be decisive, active? The narrator suggests an explanation in her advice to Ms. Evens, the pregnant woman who consults her for help. “The tears fall so easy when they take away love. Be a man, Mrs. Evans. It’s all that’s left for you.” Women’s supposed predilection for love, for a love that takes control of them and guides them past evil, is their downfall. But in the end, she suggests it’s not a gender issue: “I’ve know men more weakly and willingly victimized by circumstances than I. Even, love which is believed to obsess us, can preoccupy some men to the point where they stop fighting successfully, working well, making sufficient money.” It is simply a matter of having something to distract one from the “fear, unhappiness, cowardice, lack of faith.” These are the things that constitute evil in people, and they are the result of love unchecked by a more preoccupying occupation. Perhaps it was enough for the narrator when she was perpetually having her children to be distracted from it.

If evil is as defined above, that is consistent with how Mrs. Armitage had used Mr. Simpkin as her conception of evil initially. What is evil about Mr. Simpkin seems to be his pragmatism and the coarse way in which he pursues gratification for himself without gesturing toward loving or sharing or any of those things. The narrator’s action toward seeing him is one of the few decisions she makes, and she doesn’t understand herself. It’s like Mersualt on the beach killing an Arab — she calls him simply because the “afternoon became intolerable.” They make a plan, the sort of plan she is no longer capable of making at the end. She is precise down to ” giving Mr. Simpkin exactly time to tell his staff that he was going out for a while, to put on his coat and hat and drive from the paper works.”

This sort of deliberation, this sort of conceiving an end, and moving directly for it, constitutes evil for her. It is draining love of its illusions and its romance, and leaving only the sexual component, and the way in which such things at least alleviate boredom. He is contrasted with the clergyman’s son, who is a complete klutz, and is not merely shy and awkward but flatly uninterested. She seems to continue to interpret his awkwardness as innocence and purity, a kind of sincere emotion, when in fact it was probably closer to revulsion and confusion for him.

In her other great active choice that we see depicted, she goes to the vicarage to see him, and he refuses to see her. But she is surrounded with “magic” and goes home singing, singing about her love. Why? Yes, it was clear to her that she wanted this awkward boy, clear enough that she could act on it, but what becomes of it? “I loved him more, if anything, but my love now grew anxious, sharp, even resentful. I even told myself that I hated him, which was an elaboration of love that I couldn’t understand and which filled me with misery.” This is the preferable alternative to the coarse, practical and detached Mr. Simpkin.

It seems like a pretty lousy choice. But again we see the kind of unrequited love that becomes resentment; we see the way that any involvement of feeling will create an imbalance between two people that will transform any relationship into a kind of battle, we see that love is the germ of all spiteful emotions, the root of evil.

The other harbinger of evil for Mrs. Armitage is Mr. Conway. “As it happens,” Mr. Conway says, “I love Beth.” What does his love drive him to do? “I’m going to go off now and lay every woman I can find and I’m going to tell Beth every time I do it. I’m going to make her suffer, by Christ.” Mr. Conway is not so different from Mrs. Armitage herself. After her endless argument with him she realizes that “You learn nothing by hurting others; you only learn by being hurt. Where I had been viable, ignorant, rash, and loving I was now an accomplished bitch, creating an emptiness in which my own emptiness might survive.”

Just as Mr. Conway is driven to know more than he can stand (“Is it true that when he’s in bed he likes to …”), so is the narrator, reading letters that will destroy her, asking the questions that can’t be answered without savaging her. The novel is bent on convincing us that this is what love becomes, an excuse for two people to hurt each other, to empty each other of dignity and emotion so that they can co-exist inevitably together because there will seem to be no way out. A pointless affair that looms inevitably, that renders reasons meaningless.

I hope this is meant to be a cautionary tale, that this is to alert us to what can happen when we’re intent on escaping the responsibility of reasons. When we escape that responsibility, we end up taking on guilt for everything. Mrs. Armitage cannot escape the idea that she is at fault for everything, that her indecision had brought it all on.

Is the evil that Mr. Conway represents different from the evil that Mr. Simpkin embodies? How are they equivalent? Simpkin makes love emotionless, and so, too, does Conway, by transforming into blind belligerence. But Simpkin never pretends to love, he’s at least sincere in that pitifully small way. Simpkin is comparable to Jake in his indiscretions, but Mrs. Armitage is comparable to Mr. Conway in her ragged persistence. Everyone seems to be culpable.

Then there is Irene. Irene is absurdly vain, and obvious, and she seems very desperate for something, a victim of the notions of self-esteem put forward by women’s magazines. The narrator is appalled by her, as we are, but the fact remains that she, and those like her, are generally rewarded for their pains. Though she is embarrassing, she herself has no shame, and it is wasted embarrassment. Irene is able to reduce life to strategizing, turn relationships into a game where attention is extorted rather than shared. If its not an extortion, than its an exchange, as with Simpkin. The lesson: love is not about sharing or exaltation or self-discovery; it is about deception and bartering, it is a marketplace where attention and sex and dignity are turned into exchangeable goods.

In the section about the narrator’s youth, the same sort of covert sexuality is going on that is going on in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. “There had to be a sexual incentive for everything: that was why we went to church and were fairly attentive in scripture, biology, and English Literature.” She explains that “we plodded on with Latin only in the faint hope that we might one day be able to understand Ovid. We had not yet encountered medical textbooks, which would have provided a sharper spur.” There is something similar going on there as there is in Spark’s novel, a similar exploration of the way sex is sublimated and romanticized. There’s something wrong with boiling things down to sex, to have to pursue sexual excitement covertly, because it renders medical texts and Ovid equivalent. It makes Mr. Simpkin’s modus operandi viable. It makes girls think that a crush on a gay preacher-to-be is what love ought to be.

Later the narrator wonders why she hadn’t ever really had any friends. Here she remembers Irene, and sees that Irene at least knew how to exchange herself for something, while Mrs. Armitage had consistently given it away. She doesn’t have “a wealth which is perpetually renewed,” regardless of how many babies she has. pregnancy, motherhood, these are alternate ways of avoiding personal consequentiality. Pregnancy is just something that happens to her, and sets her life into a recognizable order, and frees her from making choices. Pregnancy, motherhood, these keep her from becoming an actual person. When she can’t have babies anymore, she casts about for another identity, and we see how sad it is. “I began drinking because the thought that I was drinking gave me a kind of identity. . . I could say to myself, ‘I am a woman who drinks.’ It was the positive action rather than the brandy that gave be courage.” This relates back to her belief that actions define someone more than reasons, or convictions, but that seems to be exposed as a fallacy here. Before she was a woman who had babies. Now she is a woman who drinks. She may as well not have thoughts, if she intends to conceive of herself that way. Sometimes it’s hard not to lose patience with such a person, as she pursues a self-destructive course that is not even redeemed by behavior that is at least dangerous, dramatic, or dissipative, or decadent. She pursues a course that humiliates her as it destroys her, and she is horribly conscious of the humiliation all the while.

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