Versus: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Sean O’Faolain: My grandmother died was I was five. I remember how she looked, her physicality, her laugh and how she moved, but I was too young to have developed an impression of her personality. My dad always said that she saw herself as Mildred Pierce. Having read the book I think I can see what he meant.
Mildred Pierce by James M Cain tells the story of a young woman in southern California during the Depression of the 1930s. Mildred has as turbulent a time as anyone could have had during that turbulent decade; her husband leaves, she starts a successful business, a daughter dies, another becomes a popular singer, she remarries and it ends in tears. And that’s just some of it.
Through it all there are two constants; her love for her children and her infallibly awful taste in men. Her first husband, Bert, seems to be in search of a woman to henpeck him. Monty, Mildred’s second husband, is shallow, broke, lazy, and ultimately betrays her utterly.
Monte: Oh, I wish I could get that interested in work.
Ida: You were probably frightened by a callus at an early age!
The best of the bunch is Wally, Bert’s friend, who Mildred has a rebound relationship with before casting him aside without a second thought in favour of Monty’s fading but still potent charm.
The driving force behind her relationship with Monty, indeed, Mildred’s driving force and that of the book, is her toxic relationship with her elder daughter Veda. In order to flatter her daughter’s pretensions and win her favour Mildred marries a swine and bankrupts her business.
I thought this was a fascinating book. Mildred Pierce is as striking a female character as any I’ve read, up there with Elizabeth Bennett or Daisy Miller, a sort of working class Scarlett O’Hara. And the book was atypical for Cain. With the success of another of his novels The Postman Always Rings Twice, he got categorised with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as a writer of hard boiled crime fiction. Mildred Pierce, a twisted psychodrama, shows that Cain was, perhaps, more versatile then either of those contemporaries.
Holly Steell: Like Scarlett O’Hara, Mildred is blind to the failings of the person she most loves. Mildred’s every thought and action is motivated by a desire to make money, not for herself, but her truly awful daughter, Veda. Veda is true snob, and in attempting to buy Velda’s love, she makes herself a figure of ridicule to her daughter.
Veda: You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t, because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing.
There are aspects of this book that I really enjoyed. Veda is so despicable that I couldn’t wait for her to appear on the page, and Mildred is the pinnacle of pragmatic and hard working, but I found it incredibly difficult to be moved or feel anything akin to empathy for Mildred because of the hard-boiled style that Cain employed.
The hard-boiled style was pioneered in the 1920s and typically used for crime fiction, and famously the Pulp Fiction magazines, but I find it completely at odds with the story that Cain is trying to tell us. I felt nothing for Mildred, but impatience with her devotion to Velda and ultimately a lack of interest in her fate, because her pain and betrayals’ are dealt out in the same tone as when she talks about making pies.
Sean: I can see what you mean. We can understand the desire of a parent to do everything for their child but Mildred is really after validation. Where this comes from is left, I felt, a little unexplored. Perhaps, and maybe it’s the economist in me surfacing, it comes from the books’ deeper theme; wealth, how you get it and what you do with it.
The book is set during the Depression following the boom of the 1920’s which found its frothiest manifestation in the stock market bubble that crashed on Wall Street in October 1929. With money cheap people believed that they could borrow to buy stocks, wait for the inevitable increase in stock prices, sell, and get rich. The book makes reference to Bert having made and lost his money in that cycle.
Mildred, by contrast, takes the hard road of working and saving. Its slower and less glamorous, but her wealth is built on firmer foundations than that of Bert or Monty’s inherited riches.
But this attracts no greater appreciation. Society in general and Velda in particular, remain entranced by the ephemeral lure of inherited or ‘speculative’ income. By the end of the book Mildred is just as bust as Bert; the cycle had turned full circle again. If there’s anything to this analysis, given that we’ve just been through the same thing with house prices instead of stock prices, this is a source of continued relevance.
There is a definite theme of those wanting money, but despising the thought of working for it and those who choose to work for it.
Mildred herself is also a hypocrite, she divorces Bert, not because of his affair, but because he refuses to earn a living, and yet pursues a relationship with Monty, despite he too being penniless (eventually) and refusing to work. Mildred likes the glamour of Monty’s old money, and see in him the same quality she adores in Velda – cold contempt for labour. Financially Veda stands on Mildred’s shoulders and grinds her down until she is bankrupt and married to Bert again.
This is a book well worth reading, despite the limitations of the hard boiled style, if only to encounter the truly awful, Velda.