A Blog Session on Emotional Repression

Can novels with emotionally repressed, even boring protagonists hold a reader’s interest? In many cases, most definitely yes.

To illustrate how, I’ll first talk about Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, which I read this month. Its title character is not only emotionally repressed and boring but also conventional, conformist, proper, too conscious of manners, timid, obedient, afraid to offend, and often clueless. Her first name, India, is about the only thing distinctive about this white, cliche-spouting, country-club-member woman.

Yet the novel is gripping and fascinating. Why? Well, Mrs. Bridge is superbly written, in an understated way. It has numerous short chapters (some less than a page), which make things go quickly. And there’s lots of subtle satire from the author.

Also, despite India being all the yawn-inducing things listed in my second paragraph, there are other elements to her that draw our sympathy. She is nice, friendly, kind of smart, unhappy, and haunted (India has longings but can’t quite articulate them or do anything about them).

In addition, we understand that she’s of her time (the decades before World War II) and economic/family situation (upper middle class with a workaholic husband) — meaning she was expected to stay home, have no outside job, and employ a housekeeper. So Mrs. Bridge has almost nothing to do to break life’s tedium, especially when her three kids grow older.

Also making the novel interesting are those three kids, who quietly or not so quietly rebel against their humdrum upbringing. Plus India has a few friends and neighbors with a bit of an edge.

One more thing: Readers — who may know people like Mrs. Bridge, even in the 21st century — are curious what will happen to such a character. Connell’s novel doesn’t disappoint, offering closing chapters that seem just right and a last scene that’ll knock your socks off. (After which India’s housekeeper might feel obligated to wash them.)

Now I’ll name protagonists from other novels who are emotionally repressed for reasons that are Mrs. Bridge-like or because they’re the victim of racism or other bias, have a history of psychological or physical trauma, wrestle with a major regret, harbor a secret, or just possess a certain personality. In some cases, they’re emotionally repressed for the entire book; in other cases, they start out fine and then go downhill, or start out troubled and get better. And those characters range from very likable to very unlikable.

A few of the many fictional people with some or much emotional repression include Sethe and Denver of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Matthew and Marilla of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Dimmesdale of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Penderton of Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, Claire of Henry James’ The American, Harry Haller of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Gauri of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Maren of Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water, Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), the kid Ricky in John Grisham’s The Client, and the title characters of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.

Who are some emotionally repressed characters you remember most?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area β€” unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.Β 

51 thoughts on “A Blog Session on Emotional Repression

  1. Dave, you might be on the verge of convincing me to read some fiction…. Mrs. Bridges sounds almost like an endlessly good read. Thanks for the enjoyable article.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Glad you liked the column, hopewfaith! Thanks! But sorry about the posting issue. I’m happy your screen name at least appeared with your second comment.

        “Mrs. Bridge” is definitely worth reading — and it’s quite short (the edition I took out of the library was fewer than 250 small-sized pages). The book was written in the 1950s, when its anti-conformity satire may have had quite an impact on some of the novel’s readers back then.

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      • “…it seems that the only comments that are posting, are comments about not being able to post” — that’s the line of the week, Susan! But I’m sorry about your posting problems. Not sure what’s going on — I’ve been able to post (though this 9/25 column does have fewer comments than usual…hmm πŸ™‚ ). I hope you’ll try again today!

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        • I wish I wasn’t being so clever. I really want to post to say I agree with your mention of Jane Eyre, and would add Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”, but every time I click post, nothing happens 😦 I’ve tried four times from two different machines 😦 Wonder if this one will work…

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          • This comment made it. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

            “Rebecca” is an excellent addition, Susan! Du Maurier was very good at depicting emotionally repressed characters — in “My Cousin Rachel,” too. And, for all we know, some of the flying creatures in her “The Birds” short story might not have been psychologically sunny…

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  2. Emotionally repressed?

    Heinrich Mann’s novel (1905) The Blue Angel describes the downfall of a small-town schoolteacher, bitterly envious of his social betters, who entertains fantasies of their destruction and humiliation, which are often visited on his pupils. Yet it is he, through the machinations of a woman, who is destroyed.

    Out this material Josef von Sternberg created the cinematic masterpiece of the same title (1930), transforming the creature of envy into an aging innocent (played by Emil Jannings). Intent to save his pupils from the amorality of Lola, a cabaret entertainer (played by Marlene Dietrich), Professor Rath finds himself, after a lifetime of rigid self-discipline and attention to duty, incapable of resisting her ample charms, however casually offered. He debases himself before her, loses his position, loses everything but Lola, who cannot be had. Love, in this instance, conquers all, but leaves abject humiliation as a consolation prize.

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    • Thanks, jhNY! I’ve seen that movie, but didn’t know a novel came first. Really good description of the film by you, and of the guy’s downfall.

      Relevant literary trivia: Erich Maria Remarque (“All Quiet on the Western Front,” etc.) reportedly had an affair with Marlene Dietrich that partly inspired the relationship central to Remarque’s novel “Arch of Triumph.”

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      • Mo trivia (possibly relevant).

        My wife’s father was a handsome young medic who served in the US Army , arriving in the European Theater shortly before the Battle of the Bulge, in which he was a participant.

        He had the very good fortune to receive kisses from two film celebrities of the day, while in London– I think one of the kisses came at a USO canteen. Madeleine Carroll, star of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps kissed him– and so did Marlene Dietrich!

        One might have thought these silver screen memories might have made his later wife at least mildly jealous– but she, a citizen of Marion IN, had dated James Dean…

        As for The Blue Angel history, I happened a while back on a book printed at the 50th anniversary of the film’s release which contained both the Mann novel and the von Sternberg screenplay.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Wow! Love that family trivia, jhNY!

          Given that James Dean only lived until 24, she was one of what couldn’t have been TOO many women who dated him.

          I imagine with your extensive music knowledge you’ve heard Phil Ochs’ “Jim Dean of Indiana”? Not one of his more melodic songs, but kind of poignant…

          And the kisses from Marlene Dietrich and Madeleine Carroll!

          Liked by 1 person

          • I always thought Dylan had a point re Ochs: he should have tried journalism, given the word-centricity of his songs, and the way some of the lines run on past whatever meter he was working in, or get stretched to fit. Like sung prose.

            It’s been a while since I heard him– so thanks! I was pleasantly surprised to hear how clear and pure his voice was; I had forgotten.

            I knew a man in DC who had been too close to Ochs in his last days, and though I cannot recall specifics, I do retain the impression that Ochs was in the sort of soul trouble that cannot end well, and that no one could do enough to save him from himself.

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            • I guess there’s some truth to what Dylan said, though a number of Phil Ochs’ songs were quite melodic — even if the melody tended to be kind of repetitive. “Bound for Glory,” “Changes,” “When I’m Gone,” “Chords of Fame”… And Dylan of course has often been word-centric, too.

              You’re right, jhNY, about Ochs’ voice — a wonderful one.

              Yes, not a good end for Ochs — who, as you know, committed suicide in his mid-30s. He had health issues as well as psychological issues, and — although he was a committed progressive — seemed frustrated that he didn’t have the kind of mainstream success the (allegedly) progressive Dylan had.

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                • That WAS kind of sad. Not sure if Ochs had an Elvis fixation, or a longing for (at least a portion of) Presley’s out-sized fame. Perhaps a little of the former and a lot of the latter.

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                  • Dave, I know there was a discussion between us about a song that Ochs recorded. I’m not sure if it was “The Bells” in which he put music to the poem of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe, or if there was something different. Can you remember? Thanks.

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                  • I think he was shamed by his attraction to ‘the frenzy of renown’. Especially as that renown proved to be beyond his grasp, at least on the scale of his desire.

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                    • You’re right, jhNY — the desire for fame can make a principled person feel very conflicted. And, as you say, that person can also feel quite frustrated when not achieving the desired fame (even as lesser talents might get plenty of renown).

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  3. Howdy, Dave!

    β€” Who are some emotionally repressed characters you remember most? β€”

    In my apprehension of psychoanalysis, I am more fraud than Freud, but I recall that when I read β€” in the last decade of the last century of the last millennium β€” E. Annie Proulx’s β€œThe Shipping News,” its protagonist, Quoyle, appeared at first to be a character completely dominated by the superego, and his louse of a spouse, Petal Bear, seemed initially to be a character completely dominated by the id. In part because he lived and in part because she died, this was not the case at the denouement of the book, which in a sense chronicles Quoyle’s development of a more or less healthy (or, at least, healthier) ego.

    Meanwhile, it is exceedingly odd I do not consider β€œThe Shipping News” one of my all-time favorite novels but I do consider Quoyle an extremely memorable character: I must be repressing something.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, J.J.! Very well said!

      One can certainly find a character to be more memorable than the novel as a whole. To pluck an example at random, I always find Jack Reacher to be a fascinating, A+ type of character, while the Reacher novels I’ve read include A+, A, and A- ones, plus the very occasional B-something. (I see I have a triple-A there, so my car-service and battery needs are met…)

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    • Ha ha, Bill! Noted. πŸ™‚ India would have been the same way living an upper-middle-class life anywhere in the pre-World War II U.S.

      Still, the way things are going for the Kansas City Royals this year must be causing some emotional repression (or depression)…

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  4. Hi Dave, in one of Liane Moriarty’s novels (though there were many to choose from), “What Alice Forgot,” Alice wakes up from a head injury in the gym and has forgotten 10 years of her life. Instead of being happily married and pregnant, she learns that she and her husband are divorced and she has two children. Although I don’t know if this could actually happen to someone, it was fascinating to read about her journey to find herself and also realize that she had turned out to be not a very nice mother, wife or sister. However, there was an event that made her emotionally repressed when she had the injury. Also, her sister is emotionally repressed for most of the book, because she wanted a child more than anything, and so she was angry at Alice for forgetting the first 10 years of her as a mother, but had to be supportive once again Alice lost her memory.

    As for the classics, I think Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” was emotionally repressed. I love this character who had to endure so much, a society woman who had to marry the right man if she didn’t get an inheritance, which didn’t happen. I think she truly loved Selden, but he didn’t have the money. She was trying to be tricked by the other guys in her life to do whatever they wanted, and I think the only thing she did for her own good, was to turn them all down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Kat Lib! Two great mentions!

      I haven’t been able to read Liane Moriarty (one of the rare authors my local library should carry but doesn’t), but “What Alice Forgot” really fits this theme. Sounds like an absolutely fascinating book.

      Lily Bart definitely has some emotional repression in “The House of Mirth” — a necessary psychological defense mechanism given what she was going through. You’re right that it was very smart of her to decline marriages for money that would turn out badly. Of course, not getting more money was part of her downfall, so she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.

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      • Hi Dave, I’m not sure whether I’m being emotionally repressed or something else, but I have a real problem with picking out books to buy. I have a Barnes & Noble MasterCard, and after I’ve spent a certain amount I automatically get sent a $25 gift card. Since I’ve been spending a lot of money on my new home, I’ve recently received two gift cards, and you’d think it was the last money I’d ever have to spend on books. This happens all the time with me, and I spend agonizing hours trying to find what to buy for free. I finally chose the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, “Born to Run,” the latest Louise Penney mystery “A Great Reckoning,” and a Barbara Kingsolver novel, “The Bean Trees.” I know this is off-topic, but it’s fascinating to me that I find it so hard to pick out books for nothing!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hear you, Kat Lib. There are so many books to read that it’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing, whether the books are free or not. But it sounds like you made some great choices. The Springsteen autobiography has gotten rave reviews, and Barbara Kingsolver’s early novels — including “The Bean Trees” — are excellent.

          When I go to the library, the way I often deal with the endless choices on my long to-read list (which includes MANY books recommended by commenters here) is to work my way backward from the most recent recommendations and see which ones the library has at that moment. When I reach four or five novels to read during the next month, I’m done. πŸ™‚

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          • That’s a very sensible way to deal with the number of books you want to read. Not that it is much better than the way I do, but you have more of a focus than I do when it comes to books — I sometimes think I’m too eclectic in my tastes to focus on any one genre. As I’ve said before, my sister and I have similar tastes, but that may not mean that we agree on everything. Which is one of the great joys of reading!

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            • As I think I’ve mentioned before, I admire people who are eclectic in their reading. I’m that way to an extent (classics and modern lit, literary and mass-audience novels, books by women and books by men, etc.), but I could and should read more genre fiction.

              And yes, Kat Lib, having somewhat different tastes in literature — and conversing about those differences — is definitely one of the great things about reading fiction!

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              • Dave, I was reading over our comments, and I hope I didn’t come across as being critical of your reading habits. I’m actually in awe of how many books you’ve read and how well you remember them, and I enjoy your comments on so many varied books, classics, modern lit, and even Jack Reacher! I think that being the youngest of six kids and having parents who read a lot as well shaped my reading habits. It’s the same with music. We had a stereo system in our downstairs rec room, and there were vinyl records galore, ranging from jazz, blues, classical, movie soundtracks, world and folk music, rock, and pop 40 hits. I’m very grateful to my family for exposing me to so many different kinds of books and music.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Kat Lib, I didn’t see your comments as critical at all. πŸ™‚ We all choose books and favor books in different ways. I’m enjoying our conversation, as always!

                  I do read a lot, but I can’t say I recall details from many novels I’ve read in the past. I rely on Wikipedia plot summaries to refresh my memory. πŸ™‚

                  Yes, parents and older siblings definitely shape some of our habits, reading and otherwise. Some kids get lucky in that respect, some don’t. In your case, it sounds like you had access to an amazing variety of music. Wonderful!

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  5. A great list to read/reread. One that often comes to my mind is Celie in The Color Purple. It takes her many years to get the strength to stand in her truth. Then she becomes matriarch of a large dynamic family and a wealthy woman in her own right.

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    • Thank you, energywriter! That’s a really good mention! Celie is an amazing character, and an amazing character creation by Alice Walker. I haven’t read “The Color Purple” since the 1980s, so I don’t think of including it in blog posts as often as I should.

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  6. I recently read George Orwell’s Burmese Days and was struck by the main character’s emotional repression, though he tries desperately to break out of it. Maybe all of Orwell’s characters are a bit that way. Loneliness is a big theme in his books.\

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    • Thanks, Anonymous! I haven’t read “Burmese Days” (it was recommended by a commenter here a while ago but my local library doesn’t have it 😦 ), but you’re right that more than one of Orwell’s characters have some emotional repression. Heck, the oppressed characters in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” need to put themselves in a psychological straitjacket to mentally survive — and stay off the authorities’ radar. Same with various other dystopian novels — Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” etc.

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  7. You hit the nail of ‘Mrs. Bridge’ on the head, Dave. At least equally, if not more, emotionally repressed is her husband, Walter Bridge, the protagonist of the companion novel, ‘Mr. Bridge’. Mrs. Bridge actually has some bonds with friends and a loving, if superficial nature. Mr. Bridge is a cold fish from beginning to end and never seems to realize what he has missed from life. As I said about ‘Mrs. Bridge’, Connell is masterful and skillful in depicting these boring characters without rendering two boring novels. On the contrary, they’re riveting (at least to this Henry James lover). Speaking of James, that master specialized in some repressed characters such as Strether, the main ‘ambassador’ of his late masterpiece, ‘The Ambassadors’. However, Strether at least WANTS to break out of his cage a bit. That waywardness is what sends other even more repressed ambassadors out to rescue the rescuer. Around that same time, James wrote the great novella, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ about–you guessed it–another repressed character who seems to think that some major event or change is about to spring on him, like a ‘beast in the jungle’, remaining oblivious to the very willing woman he’s been confiding his anxieties to for several years.

    Taking that Jamesian tactic, Kazuo Ishiguro writes ‘The Remains of the Day’, about a manservant named Mr. Stephens, whose primary mission is to SERVE–no questions asked–even when his master is hosting a dinner that is an informal gathering of Nazi sympathizers, or at least appeasers, in the 1930’s. Like the protagonist of ‘Beast in the Jungle’, he too has a female equivalent, Miss Kenton, who is willing to help loosen his constrictions for him but he has the tunnel vision of the dutiful servant and misses that boat entirely. Another novel about a deadly boring character that is not itself boring. Turns out there are many more novels centering around emotional repression than I thought, as all those other examples you cited, have shown me. Thanks for reminding me of that Dave.

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    • Tremendous comment, Brian, and thanks for the kind words! I’m sure your great recent review of “Mrs. Bridge” planted some seeds in my mind for the blog post! And while I haven’t read “Mr. Bridge” yet, the occasional glimpses of him in “Mrs. Bridge” certainly screamed emotional repression.

      Yes, Henry James was a master at depicting emotional repression, and making it interesting. I had a number of James characters to choose from before deciding on Claire from “The American” because I had never mentioned her in a blog post before. πŸ™‚

      And the manservant in “The Remains of the Day” is indeed another excellent example of an emotionally repressed character. Superb, understated novel by Ishiguro.

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  8. Dave, I just finished reading Fredrik Backman’s “A Man Called Ove” … a Swedish author whose works have been translated into many languages. The title character is a curmudgeon who wants nothing to do with anyone, ostensibly; yet who we find is a character we learn to love and one who touches many lives. Beautifully written and I recommend it highly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susan, for mentioning a novel and author I wasn’t familiar with! Intriguing premise and character — who, from your description, reminds me a bit of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Now on my to-read list. πŸ™‚

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      • Dave, I will second that recommendation, as I loved this book. We do learn to care for this character along with the others in this book. As Susan said, it was extremely well written, and I look forward to reading his second novel, “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.”

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