The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer (1962) 144 pages
The Pumpkin Eater begins with a woman speaking to her psychiatrist, a silent interlocutor with whom she reflects on the pressures her unhappy marriage exerted on her mental health. We come to know her as Mrs Armitage, wife of a successful screen writer, Jake Armitage, who is selfish and unfaithful. Although Mrs Armitage has been married before, she feels as trapped in this marriage as any 1960s wife who would be reluctant to ask for a divorce.
“It must have been then, I think, that Jake and life became confused in my mind, and inseparable. The sleeping man was no longer accessible, no longer lovable. He increased monstrously, became the sky, the earth, the enemy, the unknown. It was Jake I was frightened of; Jake who terrified me; Jake who in the end would survive. He rolled over, his mouth slightly open, and began to snore.”
Mrs Armitage lives in London while they are building a big glass tower of a family home in the countryside. Jake frequently travels, leaving her with their ever-increasing number of children. As tensions between them increase, Mortimer brilliantly portrays “the complex, subtle and occasionally tragic conversations which are the last resort of communication between men and women.”
It is thought that this novel was semi-autobiographical, detailing the disintegration of the author’s marriage to John Mortimer, and it is absolutely scathing in its treatment of the male protagonist:
“His eyes were still quite empty, and I realised now that they never changed, even in love.”
However, Mortimer does not just tear Jake/John apart, The Pumpkin Eater is better than that. She is interested in the destructiveness of human relationships, with those we claim to love.
“We should have been locked up while it lasted, or allowed to kill each other physically. But if the choice had been given, it would not have been each other we would have killed, it would have been ourselves.”
I’ve made this sound heavier than it is; I think Mortimer writes this unflinching dissection of a marriage with a heavy dose of bone-dry humour. Ultimately, The Pumpkin Eater is, if not exactly optimistic, about how we survive such pain and how it possible to endure.
“I began, very tentatively, to believe in myself. It was as though I were feeling my own face with my fingertips in the dark.”