Lessons in Structure from Mrs. Bridge

Evan S. Connell takes an uncommon approach to structuring his “novel” Mrs. Bridge, and, in doing so, he gives his readers an opportunity to consider a fundamental craft question: What does (or can) the structure of a story accomplish? Or, what is the function of the form?

Mrs. Bridge is a composite novel told as a series of 117 very short stories in the life of the title main character, each story giving a glimpse into her character, the lives of her friends and family members, and the distant and fragmented nature of her relationships with those people in her life. Any reader will make strong connections between these stories, and will eventually piece together a storyline for Mrs. Bridge’s husband, her son, her two daughters, and several of her society friends.

Connell could have easily structured this book differently and included all of the same content. For example, instead of a composite novel, he could have written a linked short story collection. One story would be about Mrs. Bridge’s husband, one about her son, and one about each of the other major characters in her life. In a sense, this is the way the reader approaches the book anyway, tracing these storylines separately from one another—at least that was the natural way for me to read it.

If it had been written as a linked story collection, the pervading themes of loneliness, isolation and social decorum would have eventually emerged. In each story Mrs. Bridge would be unable to connect with those around her in a meaningful way, and we would get the sense that she is immersed in a world of loneliness even among friends and family.

But Connell’s chosen structure, the composite novel in 117 story-like chapters, adds or rather emphasizes another theme or another layer in those themes already present. This is a theme of fragmentation and a type of detachment that is more stunning than mere loneliness and isolation. The constant ending of a chapter and beginning of a new one removes the sense of immersion in a world of loneliness and replaces it with a sense that Mrs. Bridge is not immersed in anything or anyone. She has a brief interaction with someone, and her actions are determined neither by the desires of her own heart nor the emotional life of the person with whom she is interacting, but are based instead on a set of social mores that is blind to humanity and true human relationships.

The structure of Connell’s book dips into an interaction and then withdraws. It returns to a similar interaction with the same characters later in the book, but in a manner that is detached, oblivious to the meaning of the previous encounter. For Mrs. Bridge, interactions happen in isolation, in a fragmented world of unrelated experiences. As a result, it is a total mystery to her that other characters can even have genuine relationships with one another.

The fragmented structure—the structure that disallows immersion in any person or storyline—adds a profound shallowness to Mrs. Bridge’s character and her experiences, a shallowness that stems from her failure to touch the reality of human life around her, from investing in it and immersing herself in it.

Could Mrs. Bridge have been a successful book if written in a different form? Quite possibly so. But it would have failed to capture something of her experience of time and reality that is present in the fragmented structure that Connell chooses. Connell’s form walks us through the themes of Mrs. Bridge’s life, and through the way in which she experiences life. It is every bit as meaningful and as functional as Connell’s best irony, his saddest tale, and his truest image.

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