The Reading Life: Revisiting ‘Mildred Pierce’


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This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

Of all the classic noir writers, perhaps none has been as tarnished by the brush of genre as James M. Cain. That’s because Cain — born in Baltimore in 1892, a protégé of H.L. Mencken and, briefly, managing editor of The New Yorker — was not a great hard-boiled novelist but a great novelist period, whose vision of 1930s Southern California is as acute and resonant as anything ever written about that time and place.


His first novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” published when he was 42, is said to have inspired Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”; his second, “Double Indemnity,” is among the finest of all American novels, regardless of genre or style. In 119 unrelenting pages, Cain not only indicts middle-class greed and shallowness, he also paints a considerably darker portrait of a man and a woman consumed by their desires. It is a piercing piece of work, a ruthless saga of betrayal, in which the worst sins are those the characters commit against themselves.

“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim,” Cain once noted of his own writing, “or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”

In 1941, Cain published his fourth novel, “Mildred Pierce,” a book that has such an aesthetic at its heart. The story of a divorcee in Depression-era Glendale, it was filmed in 1945 with Joan Crawford; this weekend, HBO debuts a new five-part adaptation with Kate Winslet in the title role.

To read “Mildred Pierce” now is to experience a double vision, in which we confront both how much and how little things have changed.

When Mildred and her husband Bert fight in the first scene of the novel, it is with an urgency that’s impossible not to recognize.

“They spoke quickly,” Cain writes, “as if they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit. Indeed, the whole scene had an ancient, almost classical ugliness to it, for they uttered the same recriminations that have been uttered since the beginning of marriage, and added little of originality to them, and nothing of beauty.”


Later, after Mildred throws Bert out, her friend and neighbor Mrs. Gessler defines the terms of her new life. “Well,” she says, “you’ve joined the biggest army on earth. You’re the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July — a grass widow with two small children to support.”

There’s a certain cynicism to that observation: The world-weariness of noir. More to the point, Cain’s novel is marked by a realistic resignation, the idea that Mildred has no choice but to go on.

She has those kids, of course — the tragic Ray and the viperous Veda — and Bert, although he emerges as one of the book’s most sympathetic characters, offers little help with them. But that’s not all; she also possesses an inner pride, an air of self-worth and determination, which prevents her from being beaten down.

This is a highly contemporary perspective, although it predates even “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda, and it’s one reason why “Mildred Pierce” has been regarded by some as a proto-feminist manifesto, which is how it was taught to me in college when I first read the book. Yet if that is a compelling reading, for me, ultimately, it’s not nearly nuanced enough.

What happens to Mildred, after all, is the most common kind of experience: Left with two daughters and no child support, she has to find a way to keep the family afloat. It is the Depression and there are no jobs. She has an acuity in the kitchen and is a whiz at making pies. So, beginning with a waitress job in Hollywood, she takes her destiny into her own hands and works her way up to owning a chain of restaurants, only to see it all fall to pieces when she is betrayed by those whom she has most loved.

That betrayal, by her daughter Veda and her second husband Monty, is also the stuff of hard-boiled convention, but it is not the convention that’s important as much as what Mildred does with it. She is not a stock character, not a victim, but a three-dimensional woman of flesh and blood.

What does she do? What would she do? She picks herself up and moves along. In the final moments of the novel, she is back with Bert, back in the Glendale house where it all started, and his invocation to her — “Come on, we got each other, haven’t we? Let’s get stinko” — is as stirring and real a declaration of love as she, as any of us, may ever find.

In that sense, “Mildred Pierce” is less a work of noir than it is a straightforward realist novel: dry-eyed, unsentimental, in which a woman finds grace, of a kind, first by surpassing her limitations and then by recognizing them. That’s a metaphor for what it means to be a grown-up, for what it means to have to take care of a family, to sacrifice in the name of a greater good. It’s also an acute portrait of a society in transition — that of Los Angeles between the wars.

Cain says as much late in the book, when he describes Mildred as “a successful woman of business, with the remains of a rather seductive figure, a face of little distinction but considerable authority, a credit to that curious world that had produced her, Southern California.”

Seventy years later, that world, with its peculiar mix of social mobility and social divisions, of possibilities and crushing boundaries, has rarely been re-created as vividly as it is in the pages of this book.

-- David L. Ulin