Vivian Bell, professor of English Literature at Columbia University in New York, is a socially cautious, emotionally reserved lady of 35 who makes the difficult decision to leave a marriage she feels has become stagnant and unlivable. Vivian travels by train to Reno, Nevada to establish residence there long enough to obtain a quick and simple divorce. With nerves raw as she faces the drastic reordering of her life that she anticipates will result from the legal break with her husband, she is caught off guard by an unexpected turn that brings her face to face with an aspect of herself she never before knew existed.

  It is Vivian's encounter with Cay Rivvers - a young woman of 25 with the wild courage to be true to herself and to live life openly and with joy - that brings Vivian out of herself and carries her, finally, to the point of taking the risk of opening her heart to another woman. Vivian meets Cay at the ranch where she has been staying in a guest house with others also awaiting the conclusion of their own divorce proceedings. Cay is stepdaughter to Frances Parker, who owns the ranch. Though she is resistant to awareness and acceptance of her own feelings at first, Vivian's willingness to at least acknowledge her fondness for Cay allows a friendship to develop that then only needs enough of a nudge before it blossoms into romance. Cay's initial attempt to provide that chance results in a false start that leaves Vivian feeling unsettled and embarrassed - especially after Frances takes note of the development Vivian has been denying and ejects Vivian from the guest house. But Cay, not wanting Vivian to disappear from her life for good, appears at Vivian's hotel room door and manages to convince her to let her in. Cay then makes the most of this second opportunity, presenting Vivian with a stark surprise that confronts her as clearly and plainly with Cay's desire for her as the encounter at the ranch confronted her with Frances' anger and repulsion. There, in the hotel room, Cay then begins to lead Vivian through a journey of release and self discovery. With Cay's encouragement, Vivian gradually lets go enough to allow Cay to make the expression of her feelings physical. They tenderly touch, Vivian giving herself over in increments to this unfamiliar sensation of truly sharing herself with another, until she is at last able to be freely passionate.

  All is not settled by this, however. Vivian must adjust to what it means to have become so open in private with someone with whom she cannot be too obvious in public. Cay is at ease with herself and her circumstances. But on their first venture out of the hotel after they have made love, it becomes apparent that Vivian does not yet know how to deal with her sudden sense of exposure. To her, what would formerly have been ordinary attention from a table of men at a restaurant now comes as an intrusion. Just as this brings about a new kind of trepidation in Vivian, it also creates a new form of tension between Vivian and Cay, and another meaning of the differences between them begins to show.

  With the time they have left together before Vivian's train will return her to the familiar environs of New York, Vivian must start learning fast to face the challenges that come with love, especially in a society in which the concept of love does not include what she has just found. More than anything, this means continuing to face herself. In the end, she shows that she is beginning to be ready to rise to this challenge by letting Cay know she wants the two of them to keep on being part of each other's lives. Meeting Cay at the train station, she invites her to return to New York with her. This time, it is free spirited Cay who is hesitant and doubtful, whether because of the radical change in lifestyle this would bring about, the commitment she might find herself in if the relationship works out - a thing totally new to Cay, who has never felt so strongly and deeply about anyone before this - or the uncertainty caused by Vivian's having balked earlier. In any case, this will lift Cay completely out of her comfort zone for a change, and it is Vivian who must be patient and coaxing, urging that Cay at least ride with her to the next station. Both turn out to be equally eager to have just that little bit more time together, even if nothing else. And so it is that Vivian reaches her hand out to Cay, who hesitates... but finally takes it and climbs aboard.

  The character of Vivian Bell is based on Evelyn Hall, a forty year old professor at Cal Tech who arrives in Reno by plane in Jane Rule's fictional novel, Desert of the Heart. Evelyn lives by intellect and convention. She fears that her divorce, brought about in the novel due to her husband's long faltering mental health and the advice of his doctors that he would be best off if they were apart, will be the undoing of both her sense of self and her ability to function in the social order of the world she has temporarily left behind. As many people who struggle with declining mental health in someone near to them do, she also bears the guilt of believing she may perhaps be at fault for her husband's condition and worries that she will ruin anyone who becomes close with her. She also suspects herself of being unable to truly love another.

  To better grasp the situation in which Evelyn finds herself, we must realize that Desert of the Heart takes place during a time when societal understanding of certain issues was very different. For one thing, Evelyn's husband, a World War II veteran, probably had what we would call post traumatic stress disorder. Back then, they might have called it battle fatigue or shell shock. In any case, less was known at the time about its impact on those close to its sufferers and what to do to help them cope. We must also remember that this novel was written in the midst of a generally hostile and ignorant society in which, much more (and more openly) than today, homosexuality was considered not only a crime against God and man that warranted legal punishment but also a mental illness for which people often were subjected to dangerous and painful attempts at a medical "cure". These days, there is a much greater awareness of how PTSD affects those immediately surrounding the people who struggle with it. And in our time, with the gay rights movement having changed our society as much as it has, there is a much better chance (though not a guarantee) that someone like Evelyn might have a stronger sense of having options and would sooner be able to realize that being married to a man was not something she had to do, regardless of her true feelings. These two differences in her life experience would likely free her from the emotional burden she carried for so long. But in her time, such relief is not so easily found. That is, until Ann Childs (Cay Rivvers in the film), with her fresh perspective and ability to take both life and people as they come, is able to unveil for her a new vista of possibility by way of the adventure of love and the grace of generosity of spirit. Both Ann's caring for those around her (and several children abroad that she has "adopted" by postal service through a charitable organization) and her philosophy on life, which accommodates human failings as well as their better nature, allow Evelyn to see the world with new eyes. In the process, Evelyn comes to see herself anew and finds herself falling for this young woman whose heart is so daring and resilient.

  Regardless of the era, the age difference between Evelyn and Ann is not simply a fact of the story. That fifteen year gap and certain aspects of Evelyn's life highlight each other somewhat, and this complicates Evelyn's ability to sort out her feelings for Ann. As a college professor, Evelyn teaches students not very different in age from Ann. Outside the classroom, Evelyn generally finds herself feeling uneasy around anyone in that age group. Her ability to be so relaxed with Ann is, therefore, surprising to her. On the other hand, she has no children of her own, and she attempts to put at least some of her fondness for Ann down to maternal sentiment.

  We also learn in the novel that Evelyn's first physical experience with a woman was not with Ann. It actually occurred years earlier, while she was awaiting her husband's return from the war. What is significant about this is not just that she had the experience, but the type of experience it was. The other woman, a close friend, had been otherwise inconsolable since being informed that her husband had been killed in action. The one physical moment they shared, initiated by the friend, was a last resort in that woman's search for comfort. Following this, the two essentially set up house together while Evelyn continued to wait for her husband to come home. No further intimacy occurred between them - nor did they ever once speak of what transpired on that single occasion - and her friend eventually took up with another man and departed for a new life. Evelyn recognized at the time the sexual nature of what happened between them but also knew there was nowhere to go with it from there. Her friend could not want, give, or accept anything more. That this left Evelyn hanging, with an unanswered sense of longing, was as unsurprising to her as it was painful. And, though it made her angry to think of it, she took it as plain fact that life simply was this way. (It is interesting to note that, from Evelyn's perspective, the age issue actually seems to be more of an obsticle than the gender issue. Although she accepts her heterosexually oriented life as fact, she seems to take her feelings of desire for other women in stride at the same time. Perhaps because she has never fully acted on these feelings before, she hasn't been fully confronted with the implications of them or with the threat of the full force of society's reaction if she were found out.)

  Desert Hearts is a film of the mid 1980s. Desert of the Heart is a novel of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The two are separated not only by decades but with the divide created by the Stonewall riot's initiation of the modern gay rights movement, as well as a powerful, culturally transforming feminist wave. In reading about Evelyn and the other characters in Desert of the Heart, we are not just treated to the delights of a beautiful romance. We peer through a window into another time, not really so long ago, when things were, in some regards, radically different from the way they are now. A look at that time from years later, as we are treated to by director Donna Deitch's careful attention to period detail in her film's rendering of this tale, will give us one view. A look from there, by way of a novel written during the period in which the story takes place, will give us quite another. And that is part of what makes this particular love story such a treasure. From two perspectives, it succeeds in telling us of that which is unique to a particular time in the same breath as it tells us of that which is timeless.

The Desert Hearts section of my Website is in no way officially associated with the film,
the book upon which it was based, or anyone involved in the making or distribution thereof.
It exists for the sole purpose of providing an outlet for my own personal writing about the book and film,
two beautiful works I encourage you to dicsover and enjoy for yourself.

Thanks for visiting!
Back to the Articles Menu

Click on the envelope to go to the Mailbox.

Wayshelter E-Mail

All contents

The Wayshelter

Copyright Dates

unless otherwise noted.