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Seeing the Light: Gesture, Symbolism and Sunglasses in ‘Olive Kitteridge’

January 5, 2015

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‘Properly used gestures – ’ writes Francine Prose, ‘plausible, in no way stagy or extreme, yet unique and specific – are like windows opening to let us see a person’s soul, his or her secret desires, fears or obsessions, the precise relations between that person and the self, between the self and the world.’[1] In Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge, Strout uses gesture to reveal deep emotional truths about the eponymous main character, and to develop a key metaphor underpinning the book.

Although described on the cover as a novel, Olive Kitteridge could more accurately be characterised as a short story collection. Most of the stories directly concern Olive, an ageing, short-tempered high-school teacher living in a small coastal town. Although her prickly nature generally provokes fear or irritation in those around her – particularly her husband and son – certain stories reveal the sensitive, wounded soul hiding behind Olive’s protective shield of brusqueness. A recurring symbol of this defensiveness is the pair of sunglasses she slips on during difficult moments.

In the story ‘Incoming Tide’, Olive spots a former student, Kevin, sitting in his car. Sensing he is troubled, she invites herself into the car and initiates a conversation. When he awkwardly deflects her enquiries about his life, she removes her sunglasses and gives Kevin a ‘quick, penetrating look’. Holding the sunglasses in her hand, she shares a sad story from her own childhood. Then, ‘Kevin looked at her; she put her sunglasses on.’ Olive uses sunglasses as a barrier between herself and other people, in order to escape their scrutiny. That she risks vulnerability by removing her sunglasses during this conversation indicates how hard she’s trying to get through to Kevin. However, she is unable to sustain this intimacy for long.

Sunglasses next appear in ‘A Different Road’ during a bitter argument between Olive and her husband Henry, when he accuses her of never having once apologised for anything during their long marriage. Here, Olive seems to subconsciously equate bright light with her own exposure:

She flushed immediately and deeply. She could feel her face burn beneath the sunshine that fell upon it. “Well, sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said, taking her sunglasses from where they’d been resting on top of her head, and putting them back on.

Another behavioural tic of Olive’s is her habit of blinking frequently when confronted with anything she doesn’t wish to see. In ‘Security’, Olive travels to New York to visit her son and his second wife. At their house, she emerges ‘blinking’ into the backyard, which she considers ugly. Later in the story, she again hides behind her sunglasses to escape examination by Chris’s lodger while walking her son’s dog:

      “Are you Olive?” he finally asked.
      Her face got hot. “Olive who?” she said.
      “Christopher’s mother. Anne said you were coming for a visit.”
      “I see,” said Olive, reaching into her pocket and finding her sunglasses. “Well, here I am.” She put on her sunglasses and turned to watch for Dog-Face.

Later in the story, after a heated argument with Chris, Olive leaves for home ahead of schedule. Her distress is conveyed when she again takes refuge behind her sunglasses, indoors, while standing in the airport queue: ‘Olive put her sunglasses on, blinking. Everywhere she looked, people seemed removed and unfriendly.’ When she has a tantrum and is escorted away by security guards, she is still ‘blinking behind her sunglasses’, denying the reality of her situation.

Olive also uses sunglasses to mask her harsh judgement of others. In ‘Basket of Trips’, she ‘reaches into her bag for her sunglasses, and once she has them on, she squints hard at Molly Collins, because it seems such a stupid thing to say.’

The sunglasses make a final appearance in ‘River’. Following her husband’s death, Olive begins taking long walks, where she makes a new friend, Jack. During their conversations, Jack mentions his daughter, who is gay; because of this, Jack has cut off all contact with her. Olive disapproves of his attitude, and to conceal this, ‘she reached into her pocket, found her sunglasses, put them on.’ The discussion turns into a verbal sparring match, and Jack gives as good as he gets – something Olive never experienced in her relationship with the placatory Henry.

By the final pages of the story – and the book – a dramatic shift has occurred in Olive. She has accepted Jack as he is and opened up to him, even confessing to him that Henry was right about her never apologising. When Jack calls she goes to him and steps into a room:

      …filled with the quietness of afternoon sunlight. It fell through the window, across the rocking chair, hit broadside the wallpaper with its brightness… the silence of this sunshine, of the world, seemed to fold over Olive with a shiver of ghastliness, as she stood feeling the sun on her bare wrist … To sit down beside him would be to close her eyes to the gaping loneliness of this sunlit world … there was only the silence of this sunny room… that she had not loved Henry this way for many years before he died saddened her enough to make her close her eyes… She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall …  (Emphasis mine.)

‘Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich,’ writes Stephen King. ‘It can serve as a focusing device for you and the reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work.’[2] Elizabeth Strout places these symbolic gestures and images unobtrusively throughout Olive Kitteridge, leading us quietly and naturally to this final moment, when Olive finally admits her faults and sets aside her defences; when she steps into the light.


King, Stephen, On Writing

Hodder & Stoughton, 2000


Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Harper Perennial, 2007


Strout, Elizabeth, Olive Kitteridge
Simon & Schuster, 2008

[1] Reading Like A Writer, p213

[2] On Writing, p237

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