The spinster has always been a haunting and rather mysterious figure: no man quite knows her. Victorian writers characterized her as a religious zealot or an anxious nanny. In the post-analytical theater, Playwrights William Inge and Tennessee Williams toss her about like a sex bomb on a short fuse guaranteed to explode somewhere in the second act. Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Spinster and Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God show the bomb defused. Both novels capture the faded maiden in dignity and pathos. She is as obsolete as an antimacassarand as real as the reader.
Rachel, Rachel is A Jest of God reborn as a film, with all of the novel's considerable virtues and flaws. One virtue exclusive to the movie is Joanne Woodward, an actress who inhabits her part as a soul does a body.
Paperback Freud. Rachel stands in the "exact middle" of her existence: she is 35. She is also at dead center, emotionally inert. Like a cold moon, she rotates around her widowed mother, reflecting all of Mamma's neuroses and ailments. When parents and children stay together too long, the relationship slips into reverse. Edging toward middle age Rachel becomes an adolescent. She seeks solace in masturbation, the first refuge of the child, the last hiding place of the isolated. Like a teen-ager making tentative explorations, she writhes with a suffocating guilt and murmurs to herself, "It's just to make me sleep."
The past beckons like a man, and ritualistically, she riffles through the consolations and terrors of her childhood. Her only affection is for her forbidding Scottish father, who flashes by like something seen from a speeding train. He was an undertaker by profession, and so she also associates him with punishment and death. Sometimes her involuntary memory plunges into the future, and she wishfully imagines that she is cramming sleeping pills into her mother's mouth. It all smacks of paperback Freudand so it could have been.
But Rachel the character and Rachel the film are illuminated by the intrusion of characters with the dimensions and plausibility of small-town people with small-town attitudes. They are the kind of faceless individuals whom no one notices until one of them murders, or inherits a fortune, or becomes a vice president. A fellow schoolmarm extends a lesbian hand that Rachel shakes off. A visitor (James Olson) "looking for a little action" finds some in Rachel, but he vanishes before she realizes that she has been had. Even her body thwarts her: a swelling in her stomach turns out to be not a pregnancy but a noncancerous tumor. It is the only benign thing that has ever happened to her.
Though in the end there is an attempt to reassert a feeble ego, Rachel, Rachel is for the most part a chronicle of defeat. All that women like Rachel can possibly hope for is some kind of separate peace with their minds. Unfortunately, for their glands and hearts, it just may be too late.