The Pumpkin Eater (1962) is a disillusioned account of a woman’s emotional collapse, told from the fog of self-delusion and depression in which her mind seems to be constantly immersed.
When the novel opens, our narrator, Mrs. Armitage, is having a rambling talk to her psychiatrist, who seems to be as clueless as the readers. Gradually, we come to know that our protagonist is a woman in her late thirties, married to a successful screenwriter named Jake (her fourth husband). She is the mother of an undisclosed number of children from different men, and her life is a mess.
After suffering a breakdown in a department store, she tries even harder (but in vain) to supress her feelings of depression: Mrs. Armitage cries all the time, longs to get pregnant again, and is worried about her husband’s infidelities. Annoyed by her psychiatrist’s cluelessness, she is capable of a sharp, delicious sense of humour: “I thought I was supposed to lie on a couch and you wouldn’t say a word. It’s like the Inquisition or something. Are you trying to make me feel I’m wrong? Because I do that for myself. (…) You really should have been an Inquisitor… Do I burn now, or later?”
These therapy sessions recur throughout the novel, and we get to know Mrs. Armitage in fragments, from her youth through her early adulthood and then to her middle-age. The couple lead a fashionable life in London, but their love has eroded behind its happy façade, and Jake’s successful career has moved them further apart: “I imagined I’d have more time for Jake. But we all began to live alone, that’s what really happened.” They are building a glass tower in the countryside, dreaming that they will one day be able to move there and live happily ever after. Meanwhile, children come and go, the couple are drifting apart, and our narrator has completely lost her sense of identity.
As if mirroring the loss of her own self, we never get to know her first name: identified only through her husband’s surname, and defined solely by her relation to others (daughter, widow, ex-wife, wife, mother), our narrator can be any woman with a husband and children, struggling to cope with a limiting, almost claustrophobic existence. We also never know how many children she has – which gives us both an impression that she has lost track of them, and a feeling akin to what Jake seems to impress upon her, that there are two many children running around. Similarly, our narrator seems to have also lost track of her previous husbands and lovers, who start to feel interchangeable even to us.
The novel is mostly written in dialogue, and it often has a cinematic quality, as if we were watching a scene in our mind. The book’s highlight though is its voice: sparse, wry, sharp, darkly funny, and devastating, all at once. The nursery rhyme from which the novel derives its title (“Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater / Had a wife and couldn’t keep her / He put her in a pumpkin shell / And there he kept her very well”) has a cruel undertone, which gives us a hint at the story’s main topic: a woman’s confinement in a limiting and ultimately destructive existence. It’s interesting to note that this rhyme derives from a much more violent one, where the wife is killed by her husband: “Peter, my neeper,/ Had a wife,/ And he couidna’ keep her,/ He pat her i’ the wa’,/ And lat a’ the mice eat her.”
We have a feeling that Mrs. Armitage is either unreliable or confused – probably, both. Much like her psychiatrist, we are moving in circles, as we try to trace back what happened to her. The only thing of which we are more or less certain is the fact that our protagonist feels somehow unfulfilled and hollow: suffocated by her invisibility as a mother; confined to her role as a wife; and bullied by her passive-aggressive husband, who never wastes an opportunity to make her feel like a burden, Mrs. Armitage seems to think that her only option in life is to give birth to yet another child, in an endless cycle that feels very much like a trap.
As the novel ends, we are thrown more or less into the same fog we were in when everything started: our protagonist has lost forever the only thing that could possibly give her some sense of identity; the more she tries to clung to an illusion of what she is, the more this mirage eludes her. Like a character in an ancient fairy-tale, she has moved into an empty glass tower, as if seeking refuge in a dream. If we try to grasp her, we can only touch the void she left behind: a deep sense of desolation and bewilderment, like someone who looks into a mirror and finds a blank in the place of a face.
“I was worrying about the milk, about my children falling in love, about the creatures who crawled through the dark towards us, their ancestors, their loving assassins, breathing ‘Why?’ like a cold wind.” ―
“I have tried to be honest with you, although I suppose that you would really have been more interested in my not being honest. Some of these things happened, and some were dreams. They were all true, as I understood truth. They are all real, as I understood reality.” ―
“But it is arrogance that keeps one alive: the belief that one can choose, that one’ choice is important, that one is responsible only to oneself. Without arrogance what would we be?” ―
About the book
- NYRB Classics, 2011, 224 p. Goodreads
- Penguin Classics, 2015, 144 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1962
- My rating: 5 stars
- The book was made into a film in 1964 (IMDb), directed by Jack Clayton from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch.
- The book is a loosely autobiographical story. Mortimer said to the BBC in 1963: “I have put into this novel practically everything I can say about men and women and their relationship to one another.”
- I’ve read this novel for the Wales Readathon, hosted by Paula