Olive (Frances McDormand), Henry, her husband (Richard Jenkins), and their son, Christopher (at age 13, Devin Druid)
I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like — Austen on Emma
It is not enough for me to know what I have in me … [I want to be part of] Pierre and that young girl [Natasha] who wanted to fly away into the sky … so that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others live apart from it, but so that it may be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony” Tolstoy’s Andrey in War and Peace)
Friends and readers,
Ever belated, I finished watching an unusually realistic and good mini-series, Olive Kitteridge (2014) (scripted Jane Anderson, directed Lisa Cholodenko, produced by among others Frances McDormand). adapted closely from Elizabeth Strout’s novel (2008) of the same name (won the Pultizer but that does not mean it’s necessarily bad, only that it’s deemed quintessentially mainstream American somehow and is good). I see it as a book directly in the tradition of quietly realistic ironically held at a distance novels, mostly by women, brought to its first fruition by Jane Austen. Olive Kitteridge is much more unlikeable than Emma (or Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, and I was led to the book and movie because a friend talked about how all but two women readers in her bookclub hated the book because they hated the heroine.
Henry offering flowers
What did they hate her for? I had asked. I’ve found out why: Olive keeps saying aloud truths and/or perceptions she has of other people that would hurt those people were they are there, and do hurt those people around her and are involved. Her comments are remorsely critical of others, corrosive. Such behavior or language is not a small thing: people can hate you for this if you keep it up; I’ve seen this and felt myself withered and burning in my mind with my efforts to throw off the mean observation. Olive does this it a lot, and in many situations, and especially when inside her family (husband and son). Strout has loaded the cards by making Henry, her husband, a deeply tolerant, kindly, sweetly romantic (he brings her flowers, candy, gifts), someone unwilling to unable to answer back lest he hurt her or someone else or make things worse; Henry is ever turning what Olive utters back to something kinder by looking at whatever is happening from a charitable point of view. This makes us feel very uncomfortable, hurt for Henry continually, and puzzled at such a heroine.
Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan) walking away
Beyond the rarity of making this character a heroine, Strout (and after her) Colondenko and Anderson, see Olive with sympathy, forgive her. At first it is hard to tell whether Olive loves or despises her husband or whether she is trying to lead her son to a finer career or is ashamed of him for not getting the very best grades in the classroom and thus intensely competitive. She is having or almost had an affair with a fellow teacher, in English, Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), who picks her and her son up every morning to take the four of them to school. The situation is resolved when Jim commits a suicide that is not admitted to because Jim drives his car into a tree while drunk. It’s hinted this is due to her rejection of him — and when her husband will no longer let him pick her and her son up for school and she accepts that. She is super-hard to the point of harassment over her son’s school-work; she allows no slack for him. When he challenges her with how generous she can be to others, she says I talk this way because you are my son. I say it’s one thing to insist on high expectations for your own, it’s another to denigrate.
Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) with Suzanne (Libby Winters) at the engagement
Henry’s first marriage to an upwardly mobile, self-centered young woman, Suzanne (Libby Winters), and what happens at his wedding one of these fashionable prestige events can disclose how the son and father respond to her and why some of why she is so rebarbative. Olive cannot stand her prospective daughter-in-law and assumes Suzanne will make Christopher very unhappy with her obsessive (like her mother who is there) concern for admirable appearance and rising in the world.
Olive, dress-making, POV Henry’s
Olive has made a dress for herself, deeply unfashionable, and somehow (like Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time) all wrong, an embarrassment. She worked hard on it: it’s lovely material, filled with images of flowers. When Henry sees her in it, he tells her she looks lovely. It is not clear that he thinks so, but he is trying to support her as he knows her dress just won’t do. And he knows it. But her behavior at the wedding is openly alienated and alienating, and helps no one, cannot change her son’s new mother-in-law or wife.
But by the third and fourth episode when her son has married for a second time and lives in NYC, she has shown concern for who he married the first time, seems to pay attention to flaws in the second choice (two children by two previous men? well that’s the way life is now, Mom) and misses him. She is all alone because Henry has had a serious stroke, damaging his ability to respond to anything. She keeps him in the house as long as she can and then when he is put in an “assisted home,” she seemed devoted to him, coming everyday, checking on his condition, clearly bereft without him. Her only companion is her dog and radio. When she visits a friend who sends her condolences, she finds this woman loathes her for slights and punishments she inflicted on this woman’s son years ago and she now says the cruelest things she can think of. Olive is driven into further retreat and turning to Henry, but he cannot respond nor does he seem to know what is happening around him. It is too late to mend her relationship with Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) too. He’s at core deeply embittered; he has spent years at psychiatrists, which when he tells her about, she dismisses curtly. Now though she is alone, and in need of emotional support and company herself.
For myself I would have felt about Olive the way Christopher does at the end. I have a person close to me who similarly has a cruel tongue, partly out of irritation at me, and partly spite and embarrassment, anger at me for what I am. I find I cannot throw off such remarks and they dwell with me, I brood on them.
Christopher in the morning, Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) getting children ready for school — Olive is crying hard to the side
Christopher tries and tries to keep up the relationship, to please his mother but every once in a while his hurt and bitterness break out. He ages and is clearly so tired. His new wife is not tidy; cannot keep up with her children. Paradoxically it’s in her later relationship with him we can see an “upside” to her continual corrosions. The father now dead and Christopher divorced and remarried, he invites Olive to come and stay with them for a week, for his new wife is pregnant, and has two children by two previous men. Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) could use some help. So while with this couple their older boy who is himself “difficult” keeps pulling at her dress and making a nuisance of himself and she cannot resist turning and slapping him. Her response reminded me of how Anne Elliot given such treatment in Persuasion, just takes it — and that’s not good either, for the child then begins to prey on her. For fun. Now her son and daughter-in-law are indignant at her and simply assume she’s wrong, she must apologize to the son and if the son can find it in himself to forgive her he will. This is nonsense. The boy was at fault. He deserved that slap. Olive is old, now alone, gives in, but rightly (I think) under such continual barrages of wrong-headed behavior on the part of the son and daughter-in-law leaves early. This prompts bitter recriminations by the son.
Denise (Zoe Kazan) and young Henry (Brady Corbell)
The upside of Olive’s remarks is they are often accurate; she cannot bear the cant of the world, cannot bear the pretense of sentimentality. She seems to see too clearly how selfish is most behavior and how people are exploiting one another. Of course we could be charitable and say they are helping one another to sustain life decently. But often she sees the delusion and danger, self-destruction others seem to be headed for — this is not unselfish of her as often her jealousy is actuating her too. Henry becomes husband was attracted to a young girl; Denise (Zoe Kazan) he hired in his pharmacy who manifests a child-like dependence and worship of a young husband, another Henry (Brady Corbel); this Henry is killed in a hunting accident. (There are numerous deaths over the years in this story). The husband and another male friend had agreed to hunt with him, no one at all critiques hunting, though the husband is clearly no expert. It’s no wonder the friend shots the young Henry instead of the deer. Remarkable he did not also shoot the old Henry. Old Henry allows the girl to cling to him, and Olive resents this and sees the girl as a predator, but the way to stop the husband is not these bitter sarcastic ripostes, but to admit he is looking for someone else because she is so rebarbative, refuses to respond with kindness to his efforts to be kind her to her, cannot open up. If she sees this, she never acknowledges it. That would be to admit her vulnerability. Years later Denise who marries the other store clerk; Jerry (Jesse Plemons) whom she and old Henry encouraged to go to college and now has a very good job and is well educated; he now sees Denise as a fool and himself has as little patience with her as Olive. But what Jerry does not do is allow his remarks to become too explicit too painful.
The whole interest of the novel is in the significance of Olive’s tongue, truthfulness if you see it this way, counter-productive tactlessness if you don’t. No one wants to admit she has any truth on her side. It’s so inconvenient. People consult ease and convenience in the here and now first. In the movie there is no explanation for why Olive is like this. We do not see her childhood. There is no over-voice and we have only her behavior to watch and most of it in social situations. In the book the narrator keeps her distance, does not delve. When Olive is alone at story’s end we see her grieving but we also see her stoically just enduring everything as if she was not at fault for what has happened, which in a sense she was not. I want to stress that she’s accurate: her son’s first wife is materialistic cold horror, her son’s first wife’s mother-in-law one of the world’s typical phonies mouthing cant and pretending to have all sorts of happy feelings and all the while endlessly showing off. Denise is a limpet. She did drive her son to go to a better college and become a doctor (podiatrist).
Olive with Henry when they are aging and with their dog
Her problem is she is unable to express her point of view frankly as that would reveal her vulnerability. She is all guardedness. She pays heavily for her tongue in the end. As long as Henry is alive, she has the comforting pillow companion who smooths all. When the hospital staff pretend to obey her, do not contradict her idea that Henry can still react to her, it’s not out of kindness again, but as the easiest thing to do. When she is out of sight, they will care for Henry as they think appropriate — not much attention paid beyond the physical medicine and care for cleanliness.
Olive is not justified but her response to society is shown as understandable, or it’s forgiven. She weeps real tears; she is hurt herself. She seems not to understand that she has so hurt others.
I was a little grated on by the ending. She says she will stay alive as long as her dog lives. He grows very sick and has to be “put down.” So now she determines to kill herself.
Olive late in life with Kennison (Bill Murray) walking in a wintry park
In the meantime she has (as if it’s the easiest thing in the world) made an acquaintance with Jack Kennison (Bill Murray) of a man who is a widower; his wife died of cancer. He says life is now hell and she agrees. So he is like her: he can tell the truth. Yet they do not get along because their conversation is continually rebarbative: he is somewhat reactionary and a person who was at an Ivy League colleague (so above her in status) and she cannot bear to listen to Rush Limbaugh talk. yet in her loneliness, she invites him to come to dinner at a restaurant, and they begin to have such a direct spat, she gets up and leaves, takes a cab home. It is after this that we see her trying to kill herself with a gun in the woods.
Jack had condemned her for not trying to phone her son after the husband died when she told him what her son had done to her and complained of when she visited him; she replies he didn’t tell me when he gets married for the second time. Jack says she should have called Christopher nonetheless, but also says he has not spoken to his daughter for two years. As she is sitting with the gun to her head, the phone rings. We have seen scenes where Christopher tries to get Olive to get herself a flip or cell phone and she refuse — she does not want to be at someone’s beck and call. We realize that after for years resisting getting a cell phone she has one. It’s her daughter-in-law, Ann, phoning her to say the baby has been born. The camera only allows us to see her bent over from the back: I thought it was the face of the agon of existence and left to our imagination. What a twisted tortured state of mind the woman must have. She turns and puts the gun away. As she then turns to us her face resumes her usual carefully neutral expression. But the next day she visits this man with flowers and lays next to him on the bed and they begin to talk about, and it seems they will become friends. he puts his arm around her shoulder. I thought this a kind of cop out. I have to believe in a good ending or it makes me feel worse Strout pulled down the curtain at a happier moment to give the story a semi-happy ending, or upbeat. Of course the next moment they could fight.
A friend said of this “What I liked about the ending of Olive Kitteridge was not that Olive found a new lover, but that the Swiss-cheese-like holes in her were finally acknowledged and covered by someone else. That’s sometimes the best we can hope for in love.” I can see the ending by no means negated all that had gone before, and in a sense confirmed it. But experience has taught me as an older widow, men do not go for older widows, people do not open up this way. Making a new relationship is not something easily done after a lifetime of disillusioning experience and becoming a very particular character. The novel and film suddenly dropped the pretenses of realism – which are its strength.
I am alone now too but for the Net and think this is due mostly to my situation — it’s not a punishment. As Graham Swift says in his masterpiece, Last Orders, the important thing is not to take what happens in life as a punishment. I’ve been told Olive Kitteridge is a portrait of Strout’s mother. So maybe like Christopher she is exorcising this ill spirit. One could say that Olive being alone at last is meant to be a kind of punishment for what she is, which I take as problematic, but the fiction and film are truthful enough to hint that whether Olive had had a kinder tongue or not the world would have cast her aside once her husband was gone, because it would have no use for her. Only if she would give in, be like others, smile, let things pass, accept what is, will it smile at her and keep her company.
Maine snow, part of opening sequence of paratexts
The book performs as an Olive itself and so does the movie giving us the a truthful portrait of all the characters we pass by who are part of this rural Maine community. It is a study of small town life in Maine. Much attention is paid to scenery, to the modes of economic life. We see the sea so often, snow. boats. This means much to Strout (see Craig Morgan Teicher, “Maine Idea,” Publishers Weekly 255.5 [4 Feb. 2008]: 32). It’s an ethnography the way Annie Proulx’s or George Eliot’s novels are. I have bought both Olive Kitteridge and her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton. It belongs to the kind of novel I especially love: out of Austen, out of women writers of the 19th century, and men who write such novels too, often using a female at the center (Trollope sometimes, Henry James a lot, Colm Toibin all the time – I read each of Toibin’s novels as they appear).
I found the mini-series therapeutic. I thought the performances of all the actors superb. The music was slow and touching, full of codas. The filming of Maine caught key aspects of the place. I have tried to get down the experience for others and myself so as to share and try to understand it better. Unlike Olive, I welcome comments.