The Bridges of Madison County: Decisions

Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film is an adaptation of a 1992 Romantic novel of the same name. Robert Kincaid (Eastwood) is a photographer for National Geographic who has been sent on assignment to shoot the various rustic bridges in Madison County, Iowa. But the communities are rural and it is difficult to find one’s way around without a really detailed map or directions. The first being unavailable, he stops outside the home Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) who attempts to give him directions to the first bridge of his assignment, but is unable to visualize the whole trip and instead opts to go along with him to show the way.

Francesca Johnson is an Italian immigrant who came to America with her American GI lover after WWII. She expected a world of glitz and glamour, or at least the occasional outing to the city, but instead found a secluded space in the middle of nowhere not much better than the country she left. Although she loves her husband in her own way and is a devoted mother to her teenage, and therefore largely ambivalent children, she is obviously bored and depressed in her surroundings. It’s now the 1960’s  and she has spent nearly two decades in the town when a swarthy man not too much her senior passes through and asks for directions.

When the two go off to the bridge, they seem to hit it off emotionally. As her children and husband are away for four days to the county fair to show their livestock in competition, she invites Kincaid to stay for dinner. Their romance shifts from an emotional draw toward a personality-affirming relationship of regard into a brief physical relationship that has Francesca questioning her whole life as a housewife and seriously considering leaving it all behind at Kincaid’s urging. Ultimately, she decides to stay in Iowa where she can watch her children grow. Plus, if she were to leave she believes that her actions would be a black stain on the name of her family and current husband meaning constant gossip in town. Richard Johnson is a good man who has never hurt anyone in his life (except maybe during the war) and does not deserve the pain of his wife leaving him. Finally, she believes that leaving in a difficult marriage may be setting the wrong example for her children when they are at the ages where starting committed relationships with all of their difficulties really begin. Running away is not a healthy way to solve marital problems unless severe, and therefore she believes that she must do as she has always done and forego her own happiness for the good of her family.

The narrative of the story is a memory within a story. The tale of Francesca’s liaison with Kincaid and her difficult choice to remain with her family is the memory of past years as recounted in her diaries. The story, or the external shell of the narrative that frames the memory, is that Francesca has recently died and her children are now dealing with the funeral and the estate. Francesca wrote her story for her children because she realized years later that although she probably made the right choice, or at least a reasonably good one, in staying with her family, she made the wrong choice in never discussing what happened with her children. Even after her husband had passed.

Whilst reading through her story, her children reflect on their own marriages and lives and learn and grow by example. We all know this feeling. Maybe not from hearing the stories of tough decisions by our own parents or grandparents or friends, but through cinema and novels and games and music we learn lessons about humility, patience, kindness, compassion, and doing the right thing. Although often these moral lessons can feel right, they are more often symptoms of a herd morality thoroughly imbued in the consciousness by religions and social-political systems meant to make us easy to handle and less likely to rebel. In this way they contribute greatly to social cohesion, but not necessarily to giving our lives meaning and allowing us to be happy, and more importantly, satisfied with our lives.

This analysis of these tensions and herd moralities is a Nietzschian approach, and certainly this attempt of doing philosophy of life with a hammer has great potential for liberation. But when our lives revolve around the happiness of our loved ones and our children, and indeed our own happiness lies therein as well, we have a duty to recognize a new, more complicated dynamic at work. Does one sacrifice all for one’s children and retreat into the conservative, oldhat moralities that prevent us from enjoying life, but keep the lives of those around us more stable? Or does one move boldly into a postmodern antifoundationalist future beyond conventional morality of the weak Last Man in the hopes that our bold steps will make homo sapiens anew hundreds of generations to come? And can we even be sure that the outcomes of our actions will have the beneficial outcomes we expect and the negative effects we dread but are willing to chance? Or is life ultimately much too complicated to fit into conceptual boxes, even those contrived by our least conceptual philosophers and thinkers?

Who knows?

But maybe the point is not finding the correct course for future action, the one that will create the least harm or most positivity, but to recount the stories of our struggles in hopes of giving others tools and examples to follow or to discount while they make their own difficult choices. When Francesca committed her memory of these events to her journals for posterity, she made no ultimate judgment call about whether her choice was best. She just related what she could of the outcomes that happened and the inherent difficulty in making such big decisions in the hopes that her dialogue could create a dialectic between her living offspring and her own dead voice to enrich their own lives.

Her son realized that he played the part of Richard Johnson with his own wife. He made himself into the father, into the loving and kind and caring man who let work and realism on his own part devolve his marriage into a loveless one where his wife felt neglected. The son took these insights and worked hard to bring love and absolute regard and the idealism of all these things back into his marriage, and for the better.

The daughter realized that she was playing the part of dutiful wife, never indulging in her own desires or voicing her own dissatisfaction with the state of her own marriage. She does not return home to her husband by the end of the film and instead decides to take a short break to rejuvenate herself and think harder about her life and where she wants it to go from there. No matter what she chooses, the future course of her life seems as if it will inevitably improve through the lessons she learned through her mother’s voice, even though dead and unresponsive to questioning, backed into the abyss of unreclaimability.

I sometimes feel I’m overly negative in my essays. Sometimes too sentimental. But know I only write from the gut and from the bridge of seat of the emotions in an attempt to transfer a bit of something I-know-not-what to bridge the chasms of communication that separate us, in an attempt to bind us together in some form I know not of. In this sense, when not reaching for low-hanging fruit, I’m grasping out further than I know I can. I hope you do the same and I hope you speak to those most dear to you about those decisions most hard to make. In the hopes that you can reach them too.


Cody Ward


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