Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

10 Feb 2012

(Novel) The Bridges of Madison County by: Robert James Waller

(Reaction) Wanderers and Trouts by: Michelle Rose Solano

Francesca Johnson is an Italian woman, a war bride who married and settled in simple country living with her husband in a farm in Madison County, Iowa. Francesca may have lived in a time and place so unlike our own, growing up in a culture and world so far from our understanding, but her aspirations, frustrations, regrets and life are as inevitable and inescapable as our own.

As her story unravels, the reader could not help but feel what she feels, think what she thinks and experience being torn up inside as she is torn between two worlds. When she meets Robert Kincaid, a traveling photographer for National Geographic whose character and spirit embodies the road that he so loves, the readers find themselves standing with her at her porch, watching the scene unfold with anticipation and excitement. Her life will change from there.

From the beginning of the story, when Francesca first gave a note to Robert quoting when the white moths on the wing from The Song of Wandering Aengus by W.B. Yeats and he reciprocated later by quoting the same poem with the lines the silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun it can be sensed that they are both on the same wavelength. In her thoughts Francesca remembered trying to explain Yeats to her students, whose small country sensibilities could not grasp the metaphors of the poem.

With this simple quote alone, the author was able to establish the bond and connection Francesca and Robert had from the very beginning. It was a subtle hint of their eventual discovery as each other's kindred spirit.

The poem itself, if the reader is aware of its background, serves as an allusion and hidden metaphor for what is to come in the story. William Butler Yeats' poem is about a wanderer who catches a silver trout from the stream. The trout transforms into a glimmering girl. When the wanderer has grown old, he seeks to find her again and spend his last remaining time in the world with her picking the silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.

The poem's themes of wandering and lament for the opportunity lost foreshadows the outcome of the novel and its two main characters. It can be surmised that Robert is the wanderer while Francesca is the trout, an otherwise ordinary thing transformed into something he had dreamed of.

Francesca noticed that she was acting like somebody else during her time spent with Robert, yet she felt more alive and herself than ever before, showing her transformation from the trout (a common housewife in the eyes of her family and the society in Madison County) to who she really is in her heart (a glimmering girl - a magical being, special and one of a kind). Francesca's duality can be seen in her interactions with Richard Johnson, her husband and Robert Kincaid, her lover. These two men are two sides to the coin that is Francesca's life.

Richard Johnson, kind and dependable, represents the life she had chosen. When Francesca bought a bottle of brandy, hoping to share it with her husband, it shows how she still continues to hope for romance or something more from their existence. But the bottle remains untouched, showing what is lacking in their marriage. Though her husband treats her well and provides for her, there is nothing beyond their relationship as dutiful husband and wife. No romance, no magic, nothing out of the ordinary but a farmer and his wife. It was Robert Kincaid who opened the brandy and in a way opened Francesca to the old dreams that she chose to give up. Robert, who often referred to himself as the last of his kind, the last of the cowboys, is a romantic. Like the wanderer who discovered the glimmering girl within the trout, Robert transforms normal things.

This is evident with his photography. The people of the town wondered why a journalist would want to see their bridges - those old things that do not exist beyond their function. But Robert sees beauty in them; he sees their character - just as he sees Francesca as herself and not just as her basic functions - wife, mother, and farmer.

But in the end of her life, Francesca also takes the role of the wanderer, wishing for that glimmering magic that she once found to be found again before her time draws to a close.

One would wonder why the novel, The Bridges of Madison County, is titled so. Is it because of the famous covered bridges Robert Kincaid featured in National Geographic? Is it because without these bridges Francesca and Robert would not have met? I believe the bridges of Madison County serve as metaphors for Robert and Francesca, two seemingly normal people, living their everyday lives, doing their functions, as a journalist, as a mother. And just like the bridges, they also have their special beauty that only a few will understand and know.

Robert James Waller succeeded in what could have been implausible. What would a worldly adventurer have in common and want with a simple farmer's wife from Iowa? But Waller's writing gave life to Francesca and Robert, making their love story real. In no part of the novel will you find them as two-dimensional characters or mere stereotypes. Here are two very alive, very real people from very different worlds who belong to each other and should be together. Robert Kincaid's character said it best when he described their two lives as two roads, both leading toward each other. As two roads unlikely to meet, their lives converged on those 4 days that they continue to look back to for the rest of their lives.


Bridges of Madison County has always been a novel of interest to me ever since it was translated into film and as a child I was told it isn't for kids. Truly, it isn't for kids, not because of the partial nudity and romanticism of adultery but because kids are too young and idealistic to understand the subtleties of the story. Francesca had a husband who was a good man, not a drunkard or a womanizer, not a druggie or a wife-batterer, a simple man who loved her in his own way. Her children loved her and turned out well, as you will see at the end of the story. Anybody could say her life was good.

But at the center of the novel is Francesca's heart: her heart that yearns for something more than the life she had unwittingly chosen for herself. The beauty of this novel was the ability of the writer, Robert James Waller, to convey all these emotions with the simplest of words. Indeed, the book and the writing itself mirror the simple yet profound sensibility of the main character.

This novel is an easy read, not only because of the simplicity of the writer's style, which makes the act of reading flow effortlessly, but also because of the length - it is only 192 pages long. The photographs of the covered bridges served as illustrations in the story, giving the book a realistic feel, as if Robert Kincaid took those pictures himself for the novel.

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