"The Bridle" is narrated by Marge, a woman who supervises an apartment building in Arizona alongside her husband Harley. She tells the story about a family that moves into an apartment for a while after being displaced from their farm in Minnesota.
The story begins in a hot July, when the family pulls into the parking lot and Marge sees through the window how the car is overpacked with two boys in the backseat, clothes, suitcases, etc. Later, she and Harley would "put together" that the bank had repossessed their property and farm equipment from Minnesota.
After a few minutes, the adults leave the car and approach Marge's apartment. She brings them to the living room – "the living room is where I do business" – which also houses her beautician equipment. She calls herself a "stylist" and likes to do hair for extra money and company when she can get clients. The farmer introduces himself as Holits, and the woman keeps her eyes down. They tell Marge they have two boys who can share a room, and that they need a furnished apartment. The woman notices that the plant in the living room is drying out, and the narrator apologizes that it needs water. Marge gives them the price, they approve, and she brings them outside to the apartment.
While outside, she hears Harley and sees him cutting the grass. She then tells the reader that they work for Fulton Terrace, Inc., and act as superintendents. She waves to Harley, and tells them who he is. She asks Holits his trade, and he tells he was a farmer; his wife, introduced by Holits for the first time as Betty, tries to explain how he was good at his trade, but he stops her. Marge realizes he is unemployed, and specifies that they will have to pay deposits. She looks out at the pool, where some of the other residents are reclining in the sun, and then over at the boys, who are now playing outside the car.
She shows them the apartment; it's simple, but they take it. For the first time, Betty looks directly at Holits, to approve the decision. Then she begins snapping her fingers for no reason, after which she runs her nails across the counter. The narrator is confused, but says nothing. She is very happy to rent the apartment, since not many units were renting, and the family seemed dependable, if out of luck. Back in the office, Holits pays cash, and Betty notices another dried-out plant. When they leave, Marge pictures Harley as a farmer behind a plow, rather than simply behind the lawnmower outside.
She watches them unload from her window, and notices that Holits unloads a bridle, which is a piece consisting of buckles, straps, and reins, used to control a horse while riding it. When she sees the bridle, she says "I don’t know what to do next. I don't feel like doing anything." She moves the money back and forth from the cashbox, and imagines where the money will go through its time in circulation. She thinks about Las Vegas, which she has only seen on TV, and wonders about the other cities it might end up in. She writes her name on a bill (the first time she provides her name) and hopes it will engender some mystery for someone down the road.
When Harley comes in from the yard work, he asks about the family, which he calls "the Swedes." She tells him they're not Swedes, but he ignores her. She tells him a bit about them, but he is distracted by the TV he turns on, and "probably [forgets] he asked [her] the question."
The next day, the boys wash the car and then Marge sees Betty drive away, presumably to find work. Later, she sees the boys out by the pool. She tells the reader about the others by the pool, people who are usually there. One is Irving Cobb, a Denny's cook, who also goes by the name "Spuds." He is recently remarried to Linda Cobb. The other is Connie Nova, who is dressed in a small bikini, and who lives with a college student after having kicked out the alcoholic lawyer she'd initially moved in with. Marge recalls how Spuds and Linda had her and Harley over one night for dinner, and then showed lots of home movies with pictures of his dead wife. Both Spuds and Linda kept mentioning the wife every time she showed up in pictures, until Harley finally made an excuse for them to leave.
Marge then reminisces about a party Connie Nova threw soon after she'd moved in. It was when she was still living with the alcoholic lawyer, and on top of the unsavory company, Marge was turned off when the lawyer began a game where the winner would win a complimentary divorce when he or she wanted it. Neither Harley nor Marge drew, and they left the party soon afterwards.
A week after the family moves in, Harley asks whether Holits has found work. She notices he has not turned on the TV, but as soon as she answers, he does. Marge tells how Betty has found a job as a waitress nearby, and works two shifts a day, with a break during which she can fix lunch for her husband and the boys. Holits stays inside all day, while the boys stay by the pool. Marge tells how she learned about Betty one day when she did Betty's hair. One morning, Betty had come down and asked if Marge could fix her hair quickly during the lunch shift. Marge checks her appointment book, even though there are no appointments. When the appointment nears, she tells Harley to leave the room, so he grumbles and watches TV in the back. Betty comes by and notices Marge using a nail file; Marge offers that she also does manicures. Their time together is special for Marge, even if she can't quite communicate that. While Betty's hair is soaking, Marge begins to do the manicure – when Betty protests, Marge tells her the first is "always no charge." Betty then begins to speak, telling Marge how the boys are Holits's from a first marriage but she loves them anyway, how their family's life seemed to be going somewhere until Holits began to bet on horses and lost money, and how she's not very good at waitressing. She goes into particular detail about a horse that Holits bought and continued to bet on even though the horse was clearly not competitive. Betty's story grows even bigger, as she talks about a high-school counselor who once asked what "dreams" she had, and how Betty wrote the counselor off as old, feeling like "I knew something she didn't." Now that she is as old as that counselor was, "if anybody asked [her] that question again, about [her] dreams and all, [she'd] tell them." When Marge asks her what she would tell, Betty says "Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from." Marge feels inspired to share her own story with Harley, to explain that she understands Betty's desperation, but she hears Holits enter the room and quietens up.
Time passes, but Betty never comes back to get her hair done again. The boys spend the summer by the pool until school starts. Every month, they bring down the rent in cash and Marge only sees Betty through the window on her way to and from work. Holits seems to have gotten work, since he drives off every morning. Meanwhile, Holits and Betty have befriended Connie and Spuds and their respective partners, and the group drinks and hangs out together.
One Saturday night, the group is still out in the pool area, drinking and making noise. It's past the posted pool closing time, but Marge doesn't want to spoil the fun herself, and Harley is asleep in front of the TV. She watches them from the window, and sees all but Betty are in bathing suits; Betty is in her work uniform. Through the windows, she sees Holits being encouraged to climb up to the cabana over the pool. She can hear them daring him to do something, and since Harley is still passed out, decides she must stop it herself.
As she gets outside, she hears Betty caution him to "think what [he's] doing" but he takes a running leap for the pool anyway. Marge says, "I see him hit the deck. I hear him, too." By the time she gets to them, Holits has a bad gash, his eyes are glassy, and he is unable to focus on anyone. She demands they go to the emergency room, but Betty shakes her head. She thinks Betty is the only one not drunk. They all argue over whether to take him, and Marge feels compelled to scold them for being out too late. Other residents are yelling for them to keep it down while the group, despite its drunkenness, loads into a car and drives off for the hospital.
For a week after, both Holits and Betty don't leave. Marge asks after Holits from the boys, but they only share that he "hurt his head." Holits seems not to recognize anyone, which irks Harley. Marge doesn't tell him what happened. One Sunday, she sees the boys begin to pack the car. The next morning, Betty sends down a note, saying they unfortunately have to move and that she hopes they can get a protracted refund since they are leaving early. She also notes, "Thanks for doing my hair that time." Marge asks the boy to tell Betty that she's sorry. Harley reads the note and insists they will get no refund, and Marge doesn't bother to argue.
When they leave, Connie and Spuds are by the pool and wave. Holits doesn't recognize them, and Betty has to direct him to the car. Harley wonders what Marge is watching through the window, and joins her for a moment before returning to his TV. He doesn't hear her and she stands in front of him, as though about to make a declaration, but the phone rings. Neither answers it.
Marge gets cleaning supplies and heads up to the room. She says a silent thanks to Betty for having cleaned so well. The only item that's been left behind is the bridle. She looks at it closely, and ponders what it'd be like to wear it: "If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you'd know it was time. You'd know you were going somewhere."
"The Bridle" is a story about people trapped in their lives. The narrator, Marge, is a classic Carver character in that she suffers from a severe desperation that she lacks the vocabulary to adequately express. The conflicts that pervade the story are between "dreams" – of other possibilities, other places, being other people – and the limitations imposed by the lack of opportunity.
It's worth considering the central metaphor of the bridle. The bridle is used to control a horse for maximum effect. Placed into a horse's mouth and controlled by the rider, it is an extreme way to force restraint on the part of a wild horse. And yet it produces results. So it serves as illustration of another conflict, that between restraint and impetuousness. The image will help to appreciate the way the story explores all these themes.
Marge is a woman trapped in her life. She struggles so hard to believe she has a strong, personal identity, even though it is completely subsumed into her dull, sad life with Harley. She wants to be viewed as a businesswoman, first of all. Notice the way she tells the reader her business routine – she does business in the living room – and the way she attempts to create a distance between herself and the customers. Even as she admires the lives of others through her window, she is unable to show empathy for Holits's plight after he hits the pavement, but instead scolds them for being out too late. She holds desperately to this illusion that she is in charge, even though she knows deep down that she's just an anonymous face in Fulton Terrace, Inc. The same is certainly true of her stylist business – though she has few, if any, customers, she pretends as though she is actually in a thriving business, checking her empty book before scheduling Betty for an appointment. It's all part of the way Marge attempts to declare a strong identity for herself, to validate the life choices that have gotten her where she is.
And yet perhaps most telling of all is that she never actually introduces herself. The story is told in present tense even though it recounts events that have happened in the past. This indicates that Marge is currently speaking the story to someone, the way she did not get a chance to tell her story to Betty during their hair appointment. And yet she never actually introduces herself, other than when she mentions writing the name on the bill. The point is that she does not actually think of herself as being as significant as the front she builds suggests.
The moment with the bill also illustrates her awareness of her desperation, even if she can't bring herself to admit it explicitly. Throughout the story, people are introduced by their trade. She and Harley both seem to think of Holits in terms of being a farmer, and she introduces the other residents in terms of their profession. And yet not only is her profession not anything she particularly cares about, but she is also without any real sense of potential. The extent of her daydreaming, especially with the dollar bills, illustrates this. Like the characters in "Vitamins" who use Portland as a receptacle for their wanderlust, so does Marge daydream of other places. The list she uses – Las Vegas, Wakiki Beach, Florida – are all so far away and yet unique in that they are not her little town in Arizona. The loneliness of the apartment building is well painted by Carver – he mentions that it is on a highway, and never does Marge talk about getting out to town. It's a literally dried-out place (the plants never blossom), which seems an apt metaphor for where Marge has ended up. So desperate is Marge for other lives that she even daydreams being Betty at one point, and likewise imagines Harley as a farmer.
She has an unsated curiosity, which is clear from she way she seems to watch life pass through her window. This illustrates the common Carver theme of detachment. As described above, Marge is certainly detached from herself, but everyone seems detached from everyone else as well. Her story about the jovial way that party guests celebrate the potential for free divorce is strong example – it sickens Marge to realize that people expect to be separated from one another. Perhaps most relevant is how distant she and Harley are from one another. They barely talk except for when Harley wants snide gossip on others, and the TV becomes a symbol of their detachment. He always turns it on, ending their conversation. The couplings of the other guests – Connie and Spuds particularly – seem transient, and even Spuds's current wife seems detached enough to be able to recognize that he is still obsessed with the pictures of his dead wife that he shows on the family videos. Harley isn't concerned with people – he calls Holits's family "Swedes" with no concern for their reality at all – and seems equally unconcerned with Marge.
This helps explain why the family fascinates Marge so much when she sees them. Certainly, they're in bad luck, but their car immediately speaks of travel. They are from somewhere else. Like the dollar bills she imagines moving through the country, Holits and Betty know other worlds. And this theme of detachment helps explain why Marge is so affected by Betty's hair appointment. Though she seems a bit preoccupied with money in general, Marge gives the manicure for free, because she wants to hear Betty speak. Betty tells her of a different life, one where Holits slowly became unhinged but they worked together to address his problems anyway. Betty is able to communicate the extent of her pain, something Marge is clearly unable to, since she never reaches the levels of expression Betty does. Betty says dreams are something to "wake up from," but Marge can only report to her listener the terms of the story.
Marge is so touched by this opportunity to express herself that she almost does, but is caught by Hollis. Other moments in the story illustrate her regret that she can't express herself. She confesses she regrets not asking the boys about Betty when she asks about their father after his fall. She isn't ever able to say goodbye to Betty (though it would only require her to step outside), at least not until Betty is long gone and she can whisper it in the apartment building. One gets the sense that perhaps she regrets her behavior when she goes outside during Holits's accident. She didn't want to reprimand them – she was waiting for Harley to do so, but he was passed out. She wants deep down to be a part of them – because it would mean she is a part of something – but when it comes down to it, she isn't able to show empathy, but instead can only retreat to her position as superintendent, which she does by scolding them for being out too late.
The story never provides an answer to whether one ought to live restrained or impetuously. Certainly, one could use restraint at times – it would have saved Harley both the money he lost on his betting problem, and would have saved him from falling to the pavement. But at the same time, Marge lives a life of nothing but restraint and is slowly withering in it, just like her plants. Marge dreams of wearing a bridle in the final lines: "If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you'd know it was time. You'd know you were going somewhere." She dreams of a life where restraint could provide purpose, where she could be who she is but not feel so trapped. Contrarily, she is attracted to the idea of purposeless travel, the way the dollar bills or the Hollits family does.
The story has a near epiphany on her part when she confronts Harley. She stands in front of the TV when he doesn't address her, separating him from his tool of detachment, demanding he speak to her. The phone rings, and she shirks her duty. Neither answers it. And yet no epiphany comes. It's not that Harley shuts it down; in truth, Marge just moves on in the story. She doesn't have it in her. Should she metaphorically accept the bridle of her life? Should she toss it off? Does she have a choice or is she indeed trapped, by herself, by her economic limitations, by her own sadness? These are the questions posed by the story, none of which are answered.