Between the Pages: Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge
Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge, a deeply empathic and human novel, strives to commeasure human tendencies and social attitudes.

The novel is divided into around ten chapters, each involving different characters but all revolving around one woman, Olive Kitteridge, a stubborn, middle-aged woman who doesn’t exactly like the changes she witnesses in her small town.

I’ll talk about two chapters that stood out most to me. The first one involves Harmon, a man who has been married to Bonnie for decades, who notices one day that their “house felt like a damp, unlit cave” and that Bonnie “no longer asked him how things were at [his] store—perhaps after all these years, she didn’t need to ask” (Strout 98). Having lost his connection with Bonnie, Harmon turns towards Daisy, a widow. Every Sunday, he frequents her house by the cove in the morning, then returns to his wife at home in the afternoon. While his wife rarely asks him anything other than if he had any ideas for dinner, Harmon realizes that with Daisy, he begins to feel like something had been returned to him, something reminiscent of the sweetness and comforts of his youth. His marriage with Bonnie then, no longer sustained by either physical or emotional interaction, has lost its source for happiness. And although Daisy and Harmon “began as fuck buddies, the sweet interest they had shown in each other—questions probing the old memories, a shaft of love moving towards his heart—had [grown into] a ferocious and full-blown love” (Strout 103). After this realization, Harmon mentions to his doctor that he “might leave his marriage. The doctor said quietly, “No, no, this is no good,” [and] moved the folders on his desk, moved back from Harmon” (Strout 103).

Harmon’s position is quite similar to that of Gus (see book review about The River Why), but the reaction to each is vastly different. Gus’s journey towards love and happiness has only begun, but Harmon’s has neared its end. His life has lost its initial brilliance, and what had been one of his most significant and dynamic bonds has corroded. When Harmon reestablishes this bond outside of his marriage, though, society almost immediately repudiates him. At stake is his happiness and the same fundamental bond touted in The River Why, although the overall atmosphere of this chapter was uncomfortable, because seeing a man so blatantly cheat on his wife just doesn’t conform to society’s morals. Society views marriages as everlasting, believing that even after the physical passions subside, the deep-seated connection between husband and wife should withstand the test of time and provide eternal happiness. Thus, affairs are seen as sinful and objectionable— the Seventh Commandment reads, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”; like money, affairs are supposed to be only temporal sources for happiness. But in Harmon’s case, this affair brings him back to life—Daisy is to Harmon what Eddy is to Gus—yet while society welcomes Gus and Eddy and celebrates their newfound happiness, Harmon is forced to keep quiet, to “wait like Muffin Luke for open-heart surgery, not knowing if he would die on the table, or live” (Strout 103). The doctor’s hushed rejection of this idea raises an interesting question: do society’s perceived ideas of happiness and morality supersede one’s pursuit of happiness? Although eventually, Harmon decides to place his individual happiness over that of society, he has come to realize that happiness seems to only be acceptable if it adheres to society’s standards, even if those standards don’t always consider context.

The final section of Olive Kitteridge is perhaps the most upsetting, because while the reader is able to sympathize with Harmon in the earlier chapter, this particular chapter probes into an aggravating scenario completely opposite of that in The River Why.

Olive’s husband experiences a stroke, rendering him paralyzed and unable to communicate with his surroundings. Olive, still adjusting to the sudden change in her life, receives a sweet note from Louise Larkin. Louise’s son had been convicted of stabbing his ex-fiance 29 times, and afterwards, the rest of the family withdraws into their home, away from public scrutiny. Olive decides to visit Louise, and the two converse about their daily lives. But just before Olive leaves, Louise begins laughing maniacally, telling Olive that “[she] came here for a nice dose of schadenfreude, but it didn’t work” (Strout 156).

On the surface, Olive was simply attempting to reestablish a sense of harmony with the world around her: her visit to Louise was a gesture of gratitude and she certainly never planned to take advantage of the Larkins’ plight. After all, the other two novels proclaim human interaction as the key to happiness: Gus found Eddy and Titus, and therefore himself, and had Darla and the couple properly communicated about their situations, their conflicts could have easily been resolved. But as she steps out of the Larkin’s home, Olive understands that “she had been wrong to visit Louise Larkin, hoping to feel better by knowing the woman suffered” (Strout 162). So was it a conscious decision on Olive’s part to seek this twisted happiness? A closer look at our own society reveals otherwise: although never explicitly endorsed, schadenfreude has always been subtly observed by the population. From the sick satisfaction obtained by watching a girl fall down the stairs to the barely-detectable gratitude from the knowledge that most terrorists attacks do not occur in the States, society indeed does derive some amount of relative happiness, knowing that others have suffered worse. Unlike financial greed or materialistic values, which society can easily denounce and criticize, schadenfreude has never been openly censured…because it has been so deeply ingrained within the human condition: society, like Olive, at times cannot even recognize the source of its happiness as others’ misfortunes.

That, in turn, leads to the most troubling aspect of the story: there is no distinct conflict between Olive and society. No doubt Olive’s actions are morally unsound, but neither does society outrightly condemn her. Moral compasses begin to spin wildly: both the character and society possess flawed outlooks on happiness. Along with Harmon’s circumstances, Olive’s case presents a frightening scenario: society can suppress the happiness of an individual based on conflicts of morality and can also allow for the unchecked growth of corruption; essentially, an individual’s happiness may entirely be dictated and controlled by the whims of society and its beliefs. Strout employs the reader’s unease to conclude thus: only an individual best understands its ideas of morality, happiness and where they’re derived from, and can act accordingly.

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