April 2020 Open Book Group – Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Oh would some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us.

Robert Burns 25/1/1759 – 21/7/1796

The novel is presented in vignette-style, or individual episodes, that paint a picture of a community as seen/experienced through the lens of the ‘personality’ of Elizabeth Strout’s main character, Olive Kitteridge. Strout has skilfully created a complex and enigmatic female character, intimately attuned to the human condition, with all its strengths, weaknesses, highs and lows. Taken together, the individual ‘sketches’ illustrate and reveal Olive’s perceptions, values, impressions of people, events, social norms and irregularities.

At first glance we might read Olive’s character as grouchy or negatively curmudgeon-like and, in many ways, this might be seen as valid. But recently, a friend of mine has pointed up the fact that the curmudgeon is an extremely complex character, particularly the female ‘sort’ and I have listed some of ‘her’ characteristics for your interest, later.

Olive Kitteridge is presented as a retired, high-school maths teacher who is always, and essentially, herself. Her marriage to husband, Henry, is not exactly one of equals. Rather, Olive is the more dominant in the relationship – no slave to the kitchen (60). At times she is known to speak, sharply to him, even in public, when the gravity of life seems to be getting him down (27) or in stressful situations chooses to misremember a Christian mother known to behave in most un-Christian-like ways (121).  Olive loves her husband but is not particularly affectionate towards him, even when all he wants to do is put his arms around her. Quite clearly, Olive does not fit the male script of ideal femininity. She is strong and independent – no passive female. In fact the character powerfully reframes traditional models, as viewed in relation to masculinity, such as intellectual prowess, outspokenness and material control.

Olive and Henry have a son, Christopher, whom Olive tends to discipline, over a homework assignment or a chore left undone. At such times Henry, a religious man, would play peacekeeper and, as is his way, take steps to fill a personal desire to keep everyone happy and content (4).  As the narrative progresses and the two take different approaches to the social and personal development of their son, it becomes almost inevitable that Olive – and therefore Henry – will come to ‘lose’ Christopher even when the Olive the reprover knows she is always there for him and loves him: “I haven’t wanted it to be this way, but so help me, I have loved my son” (71) she says to his “know-it-all” (71) new, and-soon-to-be-gone-from-his-life bride, Suzanne, whom Olive, with disfavour, calls, Dr. Sue   It is as though Olive intuitively sees something truly hypocritical and unpleasant in Suzanne. As we learn, her assessment proves accurate.

However, it is also true that Olive fails to make it clear to her son just how much she loves him despite her authoritative role in the marriage. Indeed, she tends to find fault in many different things, both in and out of the home, a personality trait from which Christopher cannot escape as he grows up. As Strout writes, Olive has about her, “a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away” (6), as if she were in a mild and semi-permanent state of pain.

Henry on the other hand is widely regarded as a tender-hearted man who always tries to see the best in people and, as noted earlier, just wants everyone to be happy, a nigh impossible life framework for most of us to work within. Conversely, he is often inwardly critical of others but holds himself in check in a way Olive does not.  Henry regards his pharmacy assistant, Denise, for whom he has tender feelings, for example, as someone who was “as neat as a pin, if plain as a plate” (9). Nor does he really understand Olive as well as he might, falsely accusing her of lacking compassion when he is less than honest about his own motivations to bring Denise comfort when, as a young widow, she runs over her cat (24).

Physically, Olive is described as being tall and big-boned – she is “large” on a number of fronts – with a presence or “style” both in dress and behaviour that is all her own.  It’s no accident that her dress-style attracts negative attention from Christopher’s insensitive new bride, who quite cruelly says she can’t believe Olive would actually wear a green, flower-printed dress to her son’s wedding (70). An eavesdropping Olive’s response is to take revenge – she steals a bra that she later discards, one sock, and ruins one of Dr. Sue’s jumpers. The scene is presented in a way that might make readers smile, but which also symbolises Olive’s desire not only to take revenge but take steps to ‘throw’ the hurt away.

Olive’s plain-spoken personality provokes the ire of men as well as women. A good example is the ill-mannered male character who says he doesn’t know how Olive’s husband Henry can stand her (130), only to have his wife respond that it’s simply because Henry loves Olive (133). The scene is an interesting example of how men and women can view the same representations of women’s place in a relationship with completely different interpretations, or ways of seeing.  And in fact we already know that Henry loves almost everything about Olive; her sharp opinions, her full breasts, her stormy moods and sudden deep laughter cause him to desire her all the more (11). For Henry, Olive is not just a strong, but a sexy woman as well.J And he reasons, “To leave Olive was as unthinkable as sawing off his leg” (26).

As the narrative unfolds, we read of human flaws, faults, temptations as well as historical events which work to point up that love and loyalty will never allow Olive and Henry to part in any other way than death. We also read of many occasions that exemplify Olive’s natural empathy towards the plight of others and the sadness they invoke in her own self-awareness of life’s large and small cruelties: e.g.

in Incoming Tide, we learn that Kevin Coulson, the one-time pupil who had once been scared of Olive even while liking her, is sadly returned to the community in which his mother had committed suicide. It is telling that just the sound of Olive’s voice makes a deeply depressed Kevin feel “the adrenaline pour through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure” (39), inspiring in him the will to live. It is also telling that Kevin’s own questions to Olive with regard to her relationship with her son, Christopher, make him feel the stain of some sadness they invoke in her and make its way from her to him (37);

in Starving, we find Nina, the young, anorexic whose worst fear was being without love (94) and causes Olive to cry for all to see. “I don’t know who you are young lady but you’re breaking my heart” (96), she says. And it’s no accident that Olive tells Nina that she is starving too – that we all are in one way or another.  The inference is clear: for Olive, love is a necessary form of nourishment for the human spirit that is often in limited resource throughout the world.

There are numerous other such examples to be found in this wise and beautifully written novel, which concludes with a note of hope that, having lost Henry, Olive now in her 70s may perhaps have found a way to fill “the pieces life took out of you” (270). But that’s another story. J


  • Curmudgeons are often setters of trends who have their own minds and values, their way of individual dressing often highlights the fact that they stand outside everyday group dynamics;
  • As well as dress, they often cultivate their individuality in literature, films, even food;
  • Above all, they stay true to themselves – their likes and dislikes – and rarely adopt the interests of others as might a more inconstant, chameleon ‘type’;
  • They are caring and tend to think they are serving some greater good – even when complaining and being annoying;
  • They also tend to ground their complaints in evidence/knowledge, whilst simultaneously displaying sarcastic humour;
  • They are not always super-serious;
  • They tell interesting stories of their experiences or of people they have known in their lives – stories with good timing and often an ironic twist at the end;
  • What they are not, is cruel;
  • They don’t try to punish or hurt individuals and they are not mean, often too busy warring against systems for that;
  • They know who they are, what they believe in and are not insecure;
  • They avoid being part of a (large) group – not really team players;
  • Prefer heated debate or lengthy, thought-provoking discussions before reaching consensus with others – if they ever do J;
  • They sometimes style themselves as gadflies – willing to say things others may not;
  • This can sometimes make them disliked but they can spot things that are real problems;
  • While sometimes written off as cranks, they can at times offer valuable advice to say, an institution, by playing the role of devil’s advocate;
  • They don’t buy into the notion that authority is always right just because they have ascended into power;
  • They can also be positive and are generally happy within their own skin, but tend to be introverted about openly sharing or demonstrating emotions.


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