Caspary's central theme is gender roles, a social construct she saw slowly dissolve as the 20th century progressed. In this respect, it made sense to her to set the novel at the beginning of the century, in pre-Rosie the Riveter times when women hardly had any choices in life. Charlie Horst, full of the traditional values and double standards of morality inculcated upon him by his family, falls prey to the charms of such a traditionally-minded woman who has outwardly never overstepped the moral border society has imposed on her by having pre- or extramarital sex. Seen in this light, Bedelia just carries to extremes the role women have been ascribed: that of wife and mother. While he is entertaining Ellen Walker in the final scene of the novel, Charlie cannot help reflecting on his dying wife's station in life as a "professional wife":
Bedelia was good at her job as a wife, she knew all the tricks that make a home jolly and keep a husband comfortable. To her life with each husband she brought experience gained with his predecessor. Being a wife was her life's work and she was far more successful at it than those good women who think because they have husbands they are safe and can treat men like servants or household pets. To Bedelia each marriage was a pleasure cruise and she an amiable passenger, always amused and amusing, always happy to share the fun, uninhibited by the fear that any relationship would grow too important, because she knew the cruise would soon be over, the relationship severed, and she would be free to embark on a new journey.
Caspary, who wrote about the lives of career women in many of her other works (for example in her 1943 novel Laura), shows the limited range of options available to women who lived before the First World War. They could either conform to traditional gender roles and become a wife and mother or choose the less-travelled road of spinsterhood. A third option, new at the time, is shown in the character of Ellen Walker, who serves as a foil to Bedelia. Ellen is just as attractive as Bedelia but deliberately refrains from stressing her femininity. What is more, she is an independent young woman who not only earns her own living but also enjoys her work as a journalist. As an outward sign of her independence, she has taken up smoking cigarettes in public.
Rather than passing judgement on Bedelia, the third person narrator follows Charlie Horst's increasingly muddled thoughts and feelings without ever detailing Bedelia's motives.
Read more about this topic: Bedelia (novel)
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