Moments of Betrayal in “The Bridges of Madison Country”
“We watched in horror as Francesca betrayed herself; we were grief-stricken because we know we would do the same.”
– Sarah Ban Breathnach, “Something More”
A few weeks ago, I watched the film, “The Bridges of Madison County,” again. The movie was based on the novel by Robert James Waller. If you haven’t seen the film, it stars Meryl Streep as Francesca and Clint Eastwood as the photographer, Robert Kincaid.
It is a beautiful film but rather uncomfortable, I suspect, for many women to watch because it raises some uncomfortable questions as to what we would do, if we were in Francesca’s shoes.
Francesca is a 1950’s housewife living, more comfortable than happy, with her husband and two teenage kids on a farm in Iowa. When her family heads off to the state farm for a few days, Francesca is relieved to have her home – and her time – all to herself…to do just as she pleases, for once.
What she doesn’t count on, however, is a National Geographic photographer getting lost trying to find the famous covered bridges of Madison County and stopping by her farm to ask for directions. One thing leads to another and, much to Francesca’s surprise, her plans of sweet solitude go out the window. She and the photographer fall in love.
When the time comes for her family to come home again, she must make a decision: stay in Iowa with her family (whom she loves dearly but has given up a great deal of herself, and her dreams, for) or leave with the photographer.
There is a moment near the end of the film when Francesca is in the family car. Her husband is driving but they are stopped at a red light. The photographer is driving the truck in front of them. When the light turns green, the truck doesn’t move. Her husband is puzzled as to why (he has no idea about the affair) – but Francesca knows perfectly well. The photographer is giving Francesca one last chance to leave her old life and embark on a new one with him.
As the truck continues sitting at the green light, her husband grows impatient and honks the horn. Francesca reaches for the door handle. Will she find the courage to leave a life she is no longer happy in? Or will she do the right thing – for her family – and stay?
Francesca slowly pulls her hand back from the door. The truck drives away. The moment has passed. The opportunity is gone. Francesca has made her choice. She holds it together until she gets home again. Then she collapses in the pantry, sobbing.
Now, I suspect many of us would say she did the right thing by staying. She shouldn’t have betrayed her husband and children by having an affair in the first place. But to follow-through on that affair and leave her family behind – and break their hearts – just so she can follow her heart and pursue her own happiness?
One of my all-time favourite books is entitled, “Something More; Excavating Your Authentic Self,” by Sarah Ban Breathnach.
In the chapter entitled, “Self-Immolation,” the author shares her thoughts on Francesca’s decision to stay: “Few contemporary stories have broken women’s hearts the way the movie The Bridges of Madison County did. Why? Because we saw our own sorry selves in Francesca, the Iowa farmwife whose destiny was a head-on collision between desire and duty.”
It is a powerful and poignant chapter about the danger of not honouring our authentic selves – our own passions, hopes and dreams – for so long, that when we do finally get a glimmer of that self, through the eyes of a stranger, we may take drastic measures such as having an affair.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“The story of the ill-fated love affair between Francesca and Robert,” Ban Breathnach explains, “is a perfect example of the habitual betrayal of our authenticity that leaves us lonely, vulnerable, and aching for anything other than a self-imposed sentence of life-imprisonment, even if it’s the diversion of a stranger driving a pick-up truck.”
“Robert awakens long-dormant desires, and Francesca falls in love. But with whom?” asks Ban Breathnach. “Is it only with Robert Kincaid? I don’t think so…Francesca falls in love with her Authentic Self.”
Francesca may or may not have been happier, in the long run, if she had deserted her family and left town with the photographer. My guess is she wouldn’t have been. Deliberately hurting the people you love for any reason, let alone selfish ones, is never a wise decision.
In addition to having the affair in the first place, I think another significant moment of betrayal was Francesca’s silence upon her family’s return. While they had been away, everything had changed…she had changed.She'd felt what it was like to be fully alive again versus simply going through the motions of her daily routine. Click To Tweet
Since she’d made the decision to stay, at the very least her infidelity should have shocked her into finding the courage to speak up…tell her husband and kids about her needs and wants, dreams and desires. For if she had, maybe she could have found a way to happiness – without shattering the hearts and lives of the people closest to her.
But she didn’t. Instead, she shut down again and dutifully lived out the rest of her life, dreaming of the day when she would be with her beloved Robert Kincaid again…her ashes blowing in the wind alongside a covered bridge they’d once spent time at.
I think this infuriating ending is what makes a film such as this so thought-provoking.Seeing a fictional character's flawed choices - and the tragic fallout of those choices - can help us make wiser real-life decisions. Click To Tweet
Sadly, I suspect Francesca represents millions of women, patiently waiting for the Real Fun to begin…waiting for their Robert Kincaid (whoever or whatever we think we need to make us feel fully alive again) to show up and and re-awaken their passion for life.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been single for so long now (and for many years, this was not by choice) but this much I have learned: the only thing that can re-awaken our passion for life…is us.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
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Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the playwright of Saviour and the screenwriter of God’s Country. Maryanne is CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. To receive her weekly blog, Weekly Words of Wisdom, please sign up here.
14 thoughts on “Moments of Betrayal”
Very interesting commentary!
Maryanne – I agree totally. With everything you said. I thought I was the only one who held their breath during that scene and felt my heart ache and break at the same time. You know what’s even better (as in makes you cry buckets) is watching the Notebook followed by Bridges of Madison County. Lol.
Sometimes we need a shake up – to see ourselves through the eyes of a stranger – in order to remember who we are. And, ultimately that too will fade if we don’t learn to love ourselves and do what lights us up from the inside out! Without worrying about what other people think.
The bonds of “social norms” have kept many women (and men, I suspect) “in their place”, doing “the right thing”, and unhappy and unfulfilled.
This is why I cry at that scene. For her giving up on being who she us meant to be. But yes, she could have returned home and found other ways to be her authentic self.
This reminds me of the poem “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountain House. In it there’s a line something like “What interests me… is whether you can disappoint others rather than betraying yourself.”
And a question I’ve been pondering myself a lot…. What would you be doing or being if you truly didn’t care what others thought and released all social expectations? This as I constantly work on releasing myself from patriarchal norms that bind me (and all people) and keep us dimmer than our light is meant to shine.
Also – if you ever want a plot for an equally gripping story, let me know and I’ll share one with you.
That’s one of my all time favourite movies (and books). That very scene you described is so heart wrenching I felt like I’ve experienced it myself. But I haven’t. I can only say that there is something very relatable about that scene. So I’m off to buy the Sarah Ban Breathnach book to figure out why for myself. Thanks as always for your thought provoking insight.
You said it perfectly. This movie zaps me every time. The door opened for her at the very right time in her life, and the best way she could have walked through it was to communicate more honestly with her family. I loved what you shared here!
Hi Elizabeth! So glad you enjoyed this blog. The movie is such a strong catalyst for getting good conversations going. Big hugs to you…hope all is well!
Take care & thanks for reading…and sharing your feedback 🙂
Hi Col! So glad you enjoyed that blog! And very cool that you are buying the “Something More” book. That is a powerhouse read…life-changing. I have read it so many times, many of the messages have become a part of me.
Like you said re the “Bridges of Madison County” movie and how the scene resonated with you so strongly – maybe when a story is told (through a book, play or film) so vividly, it feels like we have experienced something very important ourselves…but we haven’t. Instead, we have been given the gift of learning an integral life lesson through someone else’s experience…fictional or otherwise.
Hugs to you & I can’t wait to hear what you think about Something More!
Hi Laureen! Thank you so much for your beautiful feedback on my betrayal blog.
What an incredible line from “The Invitation” you shared: “What interests me… is whether you can disappoint others rather than betraying yourself.” Wow! That hit me like a ton of bricks.
Life seems to be one big giant classroom…no shortage of lessons as we make our way through our days & years.
I will watch “The Notebook” – I have never seen it! I will have my Kleenex box close 🙂
I may take you up on your offer about that gripping plot idea someday!
Take care & thanks for reading,
So true yes bad decisions all around affect everyone involved. She could have directed that towards herself and her husband. Cheating and betrayal are never the answer and do not bring lasting happines
Thank you for your feedback, Catherine!
I just watched this movie for the first time. I really appreciate your commentary! She had the opportunity to break the mold. Do something that was serving her (she missed teaching, travel etc) well go do that! You don’t need Robert, just tell your family you aren’t happy. It was really hard to watch and I was crying so much 😭
Hi Erin! That movie WAS so hard to watch! I, too, cried & cried! But it such a powerful story…so many lessons in there.
I’ll share a funny story about this. In 1997, I spent several months doing “development” work in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I was billeted with a family there. They had one tv that only received the one station that broadcasted there. One evening they showed “The Bridges of Madison County”, which I was excited to watch, as it was much more interesting than their other programs. I had no idea what I was in for, because by that final scene, I wasn’t crying, I was sobbing. I had been watching by myself and it was right then that my “host dad” came into the room. I already felt embarrassed, and it definitely didn’t help when he looked at me like I was an alien (which technically I was 😆). Whenever I see or hear of that movie, it takes me right back to that moment and I have to laugh.
I’m actually afraid to watch that movie again for fear that it will elicit that kind of emotion again, but for someone who rarely cries, it might not be a bad idea. 😃
Wow, wow, wow…did that movie ever hit you hard, Rochelle! It might be interesting to watch it again (alone – Kleenex box at the ready) and see how you feel. I think it is the type of movie that hits you differently when you watch it at different times in your life. It sure hit me hard, too! I think I have seen it twice…but I may have to watch it again at some point.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience 🙂