James M. Cain


Mildred Pearce


I’m wondering if Cain maybe was one of the first to move in a direction which has since become a road way too travelled. Maybe it was original to move away from murders, light comedy or romance and into something a bit more focussed on character, into family drama, into personal scandal and money as key plot points rather than car chases or predictable ‘boy gets girl’ machinations. But you throw in a bit of wealth and extra-marital sex and this felt – post 80s TV – way too soap opera familiar. There may be a little insight into personality and manipulative relationships, but the characters are generally just a bit too extreme to treat them as particularly realistic – they’re exaggerated for effect, for scandal, for titillation. 


Maybe if I hadn’t turned off/over this sort of fare a hundred times before it might have held more interest for me, and perhaps as a model it held more than derivations usually do, but I really didn’t feel that much for anyone in the story. In the forties, too, I suppose it would have held more tawdry appeal with Mildred’s indifference to marriage when approaching sex: enjoyably shocking to some; reassuringly realistic to others who didn’t usually see characters with these sorts of values at heroines. But while in one way it’s sad that this sort of sexual immorality is unlikely to shock contemporary readers, in another there are good things about them no longer having some forbidden appeal; stripped of taboo a modern reader is perhaps more likely to see the shallowness more clearly and lose interest.


That’s probably part of it too: Mildred may have been a challenging new heroine at the time – not the usual victim of men who we pity as she’s hauled off to a convent or something, but a woman who fights her way through to financial and sexual independence. And the central relationship is mother-daughter, not man-woman (Mildred’s treatment of men is a complete reversal of much of the conventions of preceding fiction). And I realise that in my comparatively post-feminist world I’m less open to be impressed, “Independent woman (yawn) – a dime a dozen”. In my field my boss is a likely to be a woman as a man, and gender to me is incidental to how well they’ll do the job. As such Mildred’s gender was similarly less relevant to me: she just became as shallow as the misogynists she overcame, rating everyone by money and social status, and using people rather than befriending them. Actually, now I mention it, there really isn’t that much misogyny in the book: people are far more essentially interested in your income, and Mildred approaches sex in pretty much the same way as her partners.


I know Cain is respected, but maybe I need to look somewhere else. He’s a capable enough writer, and you do get a bit of a taste of the time, but fairly soon I lost much empathy for Mildred and her twisted ideas of what mattered. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the book with alternative values – does this reflect on Cain? 


April 2012