On Anne Page’s courage

The woman was beautiful and strong but sad. Doubtless she married badly. Evidence for this can be perceived in her slightly downcast left eye; in her stilted, rigid left hand; in the spine that gives the impression of needing to be held up by strength of will. To one with her aesthetic temperament, life had to have grown, or had to have always been, cold.

It could, of course, be objected that Anne Page was merely an amateur and that the long hours of sitting would have worn on her. She was not used to this, it could be observed. Doubtless, it was tedious business, this appearance of naturalness. In addition, it is not inconceivable that Dennis Miller Bunker could have been a real bore, singular in his occupation, attentive to his subject while inattentive to this woman.

Still, to explain Anne’s exhaustion by appealing solely to the immediate situation is to close off imagining her inner life: her austere widow peak; her playful left ear; her dark eyes that confront us, asking something of us, revealing something of her inner resolve. There is also in her black dress and her pale beauty the conceit of life holding on amid the quiet despair. Like Madame Bovary, like Hedda Gabler, she must have hungered. Like them, she must have demanded, from this life, to be alive to all, to put all in her mouth. At some blank point (“pain has an element of blank,” writes Emily Dickinson), she must have seen that for her erotic vitality there would be no one.

She will never be at home. This she knows. Courage, she whispers, whispers so loud as to be audible. With this word, she draws me back to her eyes, into her hands. I stand with her for minutes; I long to stay with her until I forget all apart from her.

Note

“Portrait of Anne Page” (1887) is on view at Crystal Bridges Museum as part of its permanent collection.

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