The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
I’ve never been the biggest fan of a short story. I always expect it to be a minefield of action but what I tend to find is not a lot really happens and it’s a big load of nothing. Although The Pumpkin Eater came highly recommend on one of those ‘100 books to read before you die’ lists I was slightly sceptical that again, not much was going to happen.I am happy to report The Pumpkin Eater does go against the grain.
Mrs Armitage is onto her fourth marriage. She marries Jake against her father’s wishes – he doesn’t earn enough and against his father’s – he’s too weak to be a husband. She takes with her an army of children into the marriage. We are never told how many she has but enough to have had some taken away from her. Her friend Philpot comes stay and Mrs Armitage is convinced she has had relations with her husband , although Jake does deny it. As Jake’s career has a playwright takes off – he works long hours and soon becomes the next big thing on everyone’s lips – Mrs Armitage sinks into a depression. No longer is she the motherly figure in the house or spends her days cleaning and cooking, as money is no longer an object they have staff to do this. She feels she has no purpose something Jake doesn’t seem to understand. She speaks to her doctor who decides to give her some pills for ‘her little weeps’.
Life isn’t kind to Mrs Armitage as she learns her father has died and discovers she is pregnant. Her mother, horrified that her daughter is pregnant for the umpteenth time voices her disgust. Jake also appalled, requests that she have a termination which she undergoes. Everyone around her moans at her for wanting more children but if she has no job, nothing to do in the house and an emptiness inside her is it any wonder she wants to find some sort of purpose in life through wanting to bear children.
She soon discovers that Jake has been having a longstanding affair with their mutual friend Beth and soon the truth about his dalliance with Philpot comes tumbling out.
The Pumpkin Eater is a dark take on the trappings of a domestic life where men trivialise the need for a woman’s sense of being and purpose – to highlight this Mortimer doesn’t even let us know the narrator’s first name. To men women just need to be there they do not need to do or have a sense of entitlement.
I think when reading shorter novels I need to accept that the plot isn’t going to be full of action and perhaps is more a psychological journey. The Pumpkin Eater has stood the test of time for over fifty years and will surely do so for another fifty.