The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Lonely Passion of Judith Hearnebook by Brian Moore

annotation by Stephanie Quinn-Westphal

Tara Ison recommended Brian Moore’s novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, for its exemplary use of the third person limited point of view.  I studied the novel with the eye to strengthening my own skill in using POV.   Moore’s narrator focuses on the central character, Judith Hearne, who is a plain, lonely spinster in straightened circumstances.  Her world is quite confined, being limited to the boarding house where she has just moved (one in a string of such places), the city of Belfast, the new church she begins to attend, and the house of the O’Neills, whom she mistakenly considers close and true friends.  Moore’s challenge is to create a compelling narrative about the restricted, frightened world of Miss Hearne, who often comforts herself with drinking when she can’t bear to contemplate the relentless solitude of her life.

Moore uses the third person limited point of view in a variety of ways to help the reader enter and become engaged in the mind set of this lonely and increasingly desperate spinster.   He makes no overt bids for sympathy or for understanding of Miss Hearne; rather, he achieves that feat obliquely, by taking us into her mind so that we think and feel with her at almost every step.  Miss Hearne’s internal monologue reads as unfiltered thought.  By employing the point of view this way, the author makes the reader feel as if she is hearing exactly what Miss Hearne thinks as she thinks it– without any of the tidying up or editing that people do before they speak their “thoughts” or opinions out loud.  This puts the reader in a privileged position, embedding her in Miss Hearne’s perspective.  For example, on page 9, Miss Hearne meets a man in the new boarding house where she has just moved.  She thinks:

“He was a horrid-looking fellow.  Fat as a pig he was, and his face was the color of cottage cheese.  His collar was unbuttoned and his silk tie was spotted with egg stain.  His stomach struck out like a sagging pillow and his little thin legs fell away under it to end it torn felt slippers.  He was all bristly blond jowls, tiny puffy hands and long blond curly hair, like some monstrous baby swelled to man size.”

Obviously, the paragraph shows us Miss Hearne’s honest, uncensored assessment of this man, whom she immediately learns is Bernard, her landlady’s spoiled and adored only child.   The internal monologue, however, does not simply give a clear physical description of Bernard, but also reveals Miss Hearne’s intelligent, observant and judgmental mind.  The narrator shows us this private self at work behind the outwardly agreeable, socially deferential façade Miss Hearne uses to guard herself from the disinterested world.  We don’t simply see Bernard, we see how Miss Hearne sees him, and therefore we see Miss Hearne.

Moore enlarges our understanding of what Miss Hearne, as a plain, impoverished spinster, has come to expect from the world.  When Bernard responds to the introduction to Miss Hearne, the third person narrator reports, “He stared at Miss Hearne with bloodshot eyes, rejecting her as all males had before him. Then he smiled, showing dirty little teeth.”  Moore’s narrator pulls us close to the character by revealing her painful, but accurate expectation of how she will be viewed and dismissed by men.  Not only do we see the world as she sees it, but we feel it as she feels it.

Moore also employs the third person POV to show us how Miss Hearne distracts herself from pain and humiliation, psychological devices that she would be mortified if anyone knew about.  In fact, Miss Hearne might be mortified at herself if she were able or willing to see the games she plays to keep herself afloat in the world. We are shown her very private, almost childish thoughts, thoughts that hint at the fragile treaty she’s made with reality:

“Rejected, Miss Hearne sat down, fiddled with her garnet rings, moved her thin legs together and peered for comfort at her long, pointed shoes with the little buttons on them, winking up at her like wise little friendly eyes.  Little shoe eyes, always there.”

It’s such an intimate use of point of view that it both shocks and pulls us in toward the character.  Is she crazy?  Is she so alone and hurt that she is reduced to finding solace in the shiny buttons on her shoes, anthropomorphizing them into warm eyes, the kind of eyes that would give her a positive regard as opposed to the dismissive eyes of Bernard? By showing us the hurt behind her thoughts and coping behavior, Moore makes it virtually impossible for us not to be moved by Miss Hearne, someone who at the start of the novel we might have considered an object of pity, but not empathy.

In fact, Moore’s narrator follows Miss Hearne’s thoughts and perceptions so closely that sometimes the point of view shifts from third to first in succeeding sentences.  On page 12, we see this carefully controlled, stream of consciousness effect when Miss Hearne lashes out inwardly at Bernard who is coolly assessing her:

“Who does he think he is, no manners, staring like that.  Give him a stiff look myself.  But no, no, he’s still looking.  Upsetting.  Turn to something else.  That book beside him, upside down, it’s esrev, verse, yes, English Century Seventeenth.  Reading it, yes, he has a bookmark in it.”

By switching from third to first POV even momentarily, Moore not only captures Miss Hearne’s frantic insecurity, but he also makes us feel as if we’re actually watching the thoughts float across her consciousness as she becomes aware of them.  There is little gap between us and the character.  This POV of proximity engenders in the reader compassion and pity (in the old fashioned meaning of the word) for Miss Hearne, as well as awe at Moore’s dexterity and empathetic imagination.

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