Aug 31, 2009


Thomaston, NY at left ???

Banjo GPA on Bridge of Sighs: 3.7

To follow up on the Banjo52 post on July 22, here are some questions about the female characters in Bridge of Sighs. I suppose these amount to study questions for a course including The Contemporary Novel as a topic, but to me it's not just an academic exercise; I'm really interested in any responses--which is to say, I'm not positive about my own answers.

Do Tessa and Sarah amount to a pair of (almost?) kindred spirits?

If so, are Noonan’s mother and Nan Beverly their foils, or at least a very different pair? What is the basis for comparison? Is it the characters’ strength and integrity as women and as humans?

How do Sarah’s mother, Owen’s wife, Brindy, and Karen Cirillo fit into the scheme, if a scheme is what this amounts to?

Is Tessa a strong woman who does what’s necessary, or is she a simplistic, stone-hearted wench? If there is tenderness in her, where and how do we see it? Does it balance the scale against her hard, sharp edges?

When I use the term "sympathetic character" below, I mean a character with whom the reader sympathizes; in literary lingo, sympathy, unlike pity, includes respect for an equal. We might not admire or approve of the character's every action or word, but we are interested in, drawn to, her or him more than we judge, or recoil from, or are bored by the character. Also, a sympathetic character might appeal to us against our better judgment, might challenge our preconceptions, especially in a moral way.

Sarah's conflict concerning romantic love, which includes other major choices about how she'll live her life--does that conflict make her sympathetic or weak, or duplicitous, or some other bad thing? At any point in the narrative, but especially at the end, has she made the right choices?

Are the male and female characters about equally sympathetic?

Are male and female readers likely to respond differently to any one of the female characters or the females as a group? (Ditto for the male characters).

Although questions remain about the role of destiny in the novel, or, in psychiatric terms, "repetition compulsion" and the shaping power of parents, I might now be finished with Bridge of Sighs here, depending in part on visitor interest.

Despite some reservations, I’m glad I invested time and thought in a novel that provokes so many questions. One of the best mentors in my career claimed that no English teacher should ask a question for which he already has an answer. That's bolder than my own view, but I absolutely believe in the spirit of his remark.


Karen said...

These comments aren't specific to the role of women, but more to the text as a whole. Admittedly, I read it a while ago, right after it came out, so I don't remember all the details as clearly, but I do recall a certain amount of ambivalence, despite the fact that Russo's a fave of mine. I liked it, and it was in many ways classic Russo (upstate NY, the re-living of family histories, the intersections of lives across class), but I felt like the ending was a little flat. I wasn't a fan of the final subplot (which I won't spoil), and thought that it took a little too long to wrap up.

I recommend other Russo novels more enthusiastically and more frequently. I love Empire Falls, but I don't think it's my favorite (although it might be the "best") - Straight Man is funnier, Mohawk is darker, and The Risk Pool had more emotional weight for me.

Anonymous said...

Instead of sympathetic character, don't you possibly mean charismatic character? Charming, seductive character? Funny, Moll Flanders just popped into my mind.

I think the characters I've been most attracted to all shared fearlessness. Not courage.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Karen. It'll be interesting if we hear from other Russo fans about the favorites list. I've liked a couple of others, but nothing got its teeth into me like Bridge of Sighs, in spite of the problems with it that a lot of readers share.

Banjo52 said...

A.H., I hear a difference between charismatic and sympathetic, though there's a connection. At least connotatively, don't you think charisma implies a hint of superficiality? If charisma were the only appeal of, say, JFK or MLK, would we value them the way we do, or is our esteem based on the "content of their character" even more than the charm of their personas? (I realize "charm" is a loaded word--can't do better at the moment).

". . . fearlessness. Not courage." Lady, you are an extended definition essay waiting to happen. Till then, I hope you'll go on a bit about the differences. (Do you object to the title of Lady? If so, I'll retract it--I have no character--neither fearlessness nor courage . . . ).

Also, let me take this opportunity to plug your blog, especially recently re: the southern Cal. fires--great local and up-to-the-minute coverage at

Banjo52 said...

AH, I think I get your point. Courage is the overcoming of fear, so fearlessness actually eliminates the opportunity for courage to occur?

I bet that what you're seeing out there from fire fighters and citizens alike has you thinking about courage more than you usually might . . .

Anonymous said...

You are now talking about two of my obsessions: Charm and courage/bravery/fearlessness.

I've actually blogged about both in the past, but I could go on and on, and will revisit here and do just that. (But my on and on is brief.)

(Lady is fine. Almost anything is. Just don't mispronounce my last name. It's Boo-gay.)

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