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.