April 3, 2011


The Reading Life: Revisiting 'Mildred Pierce' (David L. Ulin, 3/25/11, LA Times)

When Mildred and her husband Bert fight in the first scene of the novel, it is with an urgency that’s impossible not to recognize.

“They spoke quickly,” Cain writes, “as if they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit. Indeed, the whole scene had an ancient, almost classical ugliness to it, for they uttered the same recriminations that have been uttered since the beginning of marriage, and added little of originality to them, and nothing of beauty.”

Later, after Mildred throws Bert out, her friend and neighbor Mrs. Gessler defines the terms of her new life. “Well,” she says, “you’ve joined the biggest army on earth. You’re the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July — a grass widow with two small children to support.”

There’s a certain cynicism to that observation: The world-weariness of noir. More to the point, Cain’s novel is marked by a realistic resignation, the idea that Mildred has no choice but to go on.

She has those kids, of course — the tragic Ray and the viperous Veda — and Bert, although he emerges as one of the book’s most sympathetic characters, offers little help with them. But that’s not all; she also possesses an inner pride, an air of self-worth and determination, which prevents her from being beaten down.

This is a highly contemporary perspective, although it predates even “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda, and it’s one reason why “Mildred Pierce” has been regarded by some as a proto-feminist manifesto, which is how it was taught to me in college when I first read the book. Yet if that is a compelling reading, for me, ultimately, it’s not nearly nuanced enough.

What happens to Mildred, after all, is the most common kind of experience: Left with two daughters and no child support, she has to find a way to keep the family afloat. It is the Depression and there are no jobs. She has an acuity in the kitchen and is a whiz at making pies. So, beginning with a waitress job in Hollywood, she takes her destiny into her own hands and works her way up to owning a chain of restaurants, only to see it all fall to pieces when she is betrayed by those whom she has most loved.

That betrayal, by her daughter Veda and her second husband Monty, is also the stuff of hard-boiled convention, but it is not the convention that’s important as much as what Mildred does with it. She is not a stock character, not a victim, but a three-dimensional woman of flesh and blood.

What does she do? What would she do? She picks herself up and moves along. In the final moments of the novel, she is back with Bert, back in the Glendale house where it all started, and his invocation to her — “Come on, we got each other, haven’t we? Let’s get stinko” — is as stirring and real a declaration of love as she, as any of us, may ever find.

The essence of noir is that our "hero" succumbs to the temptation of stepping outside social/moral norms which leads to his/her downfall--it's a continual re-enactment of The Fall. Mildred is only unique in not ending up on death row, but back where she should have stayed to begin with.

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Posted by at April 3, 2011 10:38 AM

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