Mrs. March is preoccupied with appearances.
Her husband, George March, is a renowned author. Mrs. March enjoys the second-hand attention and accolades his profession affords her. In terms of social standing, she considers his success as her own.
Mrs. March very much enjoys living the life of literary caché. She’s constantly scanning the room to see if people recognize her or her husband and revels in compliments of her finery.
George March’s latest book is where her story turns, though. When her local baker suggests that the main character is based on Mrs. March, she’s shocked and indignant. How could her baker have the audacity to speak to her so, and…what if she’s right?
The thought becomes somewhat of a telltale heart, thumping loudly and threatening to expose her carefully crafted life as false.
It’s the ultimate case of imposter syndrome. She suddenly pictures everyone as being in on it, gossiping and laughing at her, even hearing whispered slanders.
And perhaps she is an imposter.
Set in an indeterminate time period that I’m guessing is in the 1940s, it’s an era in which the propriety and decorum that Mrs. March demands aren’t unheard of.
And in terms of keeping up appearances, the Marches are doing quite well. But appearances are where Mrs. March’s existence seems to both begin and end.
Mrs. March seems to take half-hearted approaches to many things in life, coveting the social ranking but not actually following through on the thing itself. While pregnant, she reveled in the coddling, but has little patience for her actual child or motherhood as a reality, promptly sending him off to boarding school.
She basks in the perks of being a famous author’s wife but doesn’t seem to care much for the actual man to whom she’s married. This quote exemplifies Mrs. March’s attitude towards marriage quite well. In her conversation with Sheila, the mother of one of her son’s friends, they discuss a recent vacation Sheila and her husband had taken to China:
“‘That’s lovely. Such a long journey, though. How did Alec (their son) handle it?’
‘We didn’t take Alec. It was just Bob and me.’
‘Oh,’ said Mrs. March, annoyed that living together apparently wasn’t enough for Sheila and Bob. They had to take romantic trips around the world, even though they had been married for at least ten years.”Mrs. March, Virginia Feito
As much as she enjoys the literary accomplishments and living under its guise, Mrs. March isn’t actually much of a reader. Though she usually has one book going, uncoincidentally Daphne du Marier’s Rebecca in this case, she seems to only act at reading as if it’s performative, the book a prop. In fact, she hasn’t yet read her husband’s latest book, which the public praises as his best one yet.
On its surface, this is a portrait of a deeply superficial woman’s reckoning. But there are so many other possibilities swirling in my mind.
It could be a woman unraveling in the throes of mental illness. All of the imagined conversations of people talking about her, unfounded paranoia that her husband murdered someone, constant conviction that people are watching her; these all point to the possibility of schizophrenia.
She’s likely been dealing with it for years, pointing back to a sexual encounter with her husband long ago when she was suddenly convinced she was in bed with a different man. She also has a history of needing therapy as a child, something she sees as taboo enough that she never told her husband about it.
The disturbing thing here is that she’s been struggling with profound mental illness for most of her life and no one has noticed. It could be a statement on the invisibility of women, but there are hints that her son is also dealing with the same challenges and no one is bothering to notice him, either.
Another possibility: gaslighting. It’s no coincidence she’s reading Rebecca, the classic book about a woman being convinced she’s going crazy when it’s all manufactured by her husband. The March’s housekeeper, Martha, is even Danvers-esque.
In an interview with NPR, Feito admits that Mrs. March is not just a victim of some man. She’s more a victim of a horrible upbringing and manages in the end to gaslight herself.
These layers of complexity are a brilliant stroke of genius by the author!
We finally learn her first name at the very end of the book. Finally, the veil has been lifted. She’s no longer just a product of her marriage. We finally see her unvarnished self.
And that self is stone-cold nasty.
Virginia Feito’s interview with NPR
Vintage illustrations used in the video: The New York Public Library Digital Collections
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