I reread Penelope Mortimer’s 1962 novella, The Pumpkin Eater, for my Goodreads book club. It is a wonderfully vivid and harrowing novella in equal measure, which charts an emotional breakdown, and was published a year before Sylvia Plath’s seminal The Bell Jar. The Pumpkin Eater is heavily autobiographical, with its markedly realistic scenes and character development throughout.
One is immediately pulled in to this important book. The unnamed protagonist, who is identified only through her married surname as Mrs. Armitage, is ‘Everywoman’, really; she has a husband and children, and a large house, with another being built in the countryside. Her fourth husband makes a great deal of money, but she is not at all fulfilled in her life. All she sees herself to be fit for is to give birth to one child after another; they, indeed, are not rendered as individuals within the novella, but are distinguished only by their birth order and fathers – there are the ‘older children’ and ‘Jake’s children’. Only the eldest of these, a daughter, is given a name – Dinah – and her own singular identity. Her current husband, too, is Jake, rather a childish moniker for what he is supposed to represent; whilst he has personal freedom afforded both by his profession as a filmmaker and the money this makes them, and by his gender, he is also the main force behind which our narrator feels trapped.
When our narrator tells Jake how much she cares about him, he verbally explodes: ‘”You don’t care about me, all you care about is the bills being paid and the bloody children, that great fucking army of children that I’m supposed to support and work my guts out for, so I can’t even take a bath in peace, I can’t eat a bloody meal without them whining and slobbering all over the table, I can’t even go to bed with you without one of them comes barging in in the middle’. Her reaction to this is rather interesting; she seems to thrive on being confronted and scolded: ‘He was shouting as though I were a mile away. His shouts delighted me.’ Jake makes her feel like a burden, essentially, and the affair which he conducts with a much younger woman only serves to exacerbate the crisis which she feels.
The entirety of The Pumpkin Eater is told from the sometimes unbridled perspective of our narrator. She is at a loss to see her worth, and when we meet her father, we can see why this is perhaps the case. He has been squashing her emotionally since she was a small child, and the fact that she has established herself as a wife and mother does nothing to alter his opinion of her; he patronises her along with Jake, and makes decisions about sending her children to boarding school, and where the family should live. She is utterly sidelined, and one can certainly see the reasoning for her deep-set insecurities. Jake is arguably more like the narrator’s father than she is herself; both are self-obsessed and utterly selfish.
Our narrator first realises that something is wrong with her when she gets into bed beside Jake, who is sleeping: ‘I thought of waking him up, but for the first time I could not touch him. Thus paralysis, this failure of my will to make my body move, revived all my fear, and I lay there sweating, shaken by great beats of my heart, ignorant as in a first labour but with no instinct, or memory to help me. It must have been then, I think, that Jake and life became confused in my ind, 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.’ Her subsequent breakdown is harrowingly evoked. Jake, of course, is unsympathetic, asking her: ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’. Jake undoubtedly has a lot of issues too, but as he is a male, he remains unscrutinised by psychologists.
The children occupy an interesting space within the novel; they both hold the narrator together and pull her apart. They ensure that she has very little time for herself, or to spend with Jake, and demand so much that she is constantly exhausted. She recognises, however, that she exists for them.
The Pumpkin Eater has been incredibly well handled, and there is an awful lot of depth to it. The autobiographical elements, which can be found in any of Mortimer’s biographies, make it all the more harrowing. It also raises an awful lot of questions, particularly in its final paragraph. The Pumpkin Eater is a wonderful and memorable novella, which feels incredibly modern over fifty years after its initial publication.