Charlie Goldman, as portrayed in Ann Packer’s Nerves, is a thirty-something man-child who is losing his wife and comes to realize that it is he who is lost, somewhere in the streets of New York City. Gripped with overwhelming fears and psychosomatic ailments or hypochondria, Charlie suppresses the true causes of his condition while making a futile attempt to save his marriage. His childlike approach to life and his obsessive approach to marriage pushes his wife Linda towards a career in San Francisco and ultimately divorce. This essay will explore the broader themes of growing up, obsession and love.
In Nerves, Charlie is depicted as someone adrift on the sea of life. A decade removed from college he has failed to embrace even the thought of a career, choosing instead to settle for jobs that have flexible hours, a convenient location and discounts on photography supplies. To Charlie, a career is put in a category with pets and lawns, “people were always talking about them, and tending to them, but they just weren’t that interesting (pg.145)”. What does interest him is getting and holding the attention of his college sweetheart turned wife, Linda. The dilemma for Charlie is that Linda has been unhappy in their relationship for some time and he has been blissfully ignorant of that fact. In the story Charlie is depicted in the role of child to Linda’s mother in their marriage dynamic. Linda goes to school full-time so that she can have a career in architecture while Charlie works part-time in a camera store. It is made clear that she is exasperated because he doesn’t “care if things are clean. It’s totally up to me (pg.162).” She feels the pressure of being the breadwinner in the family and is frustrated with his blissful ignorance and inability to make a contribution to the household. But he never thinks anything is wrong because “he didn’t know how to think of their marriage as troubled; it had always seemed to him that they got along very well -no fights (pg.161).” His lack of self-awareness and maturity blinded him to the clues that something was wrong but, like a child, he only knows someone is upset when they hear raised voices.
The stunted growth and lack of maturity demonstrated by Charlie’s character is also evidenced in the way that he loves. Charlie has difficulty achieving true intimacy with his wife, leading one to wonder if he ever truly loved Linda. Even as he frantically tries to save his marriage Charlie manages to will himself into a crush on his doctor. When he met Linda in college he confesses that he couldn’t stand her enthusiastic and positive demeanor, remarking that he wanted to tell her that “Neat is the opposite of messy, damn it! (pg.148).” Only after overhearing Linda tell a friend she was attracted to him did he find himself interested in her. College, for many people, is a coming of age experience where they find themselves and what they truly value. For Charlie, he tried desperately to find himself in Linda to the exclusion of all other interests. He was adrift.
The problem with love is that if it not based on mutual admiration and respect it can easily lapse into obsession and clearly Charlie crosses over that line in the story. Charlie’s obsession manifests itself in the form of physical, or possibly imagined pain. Charlie is told by Linda that he has a sore arm “the way other people have a hobby (pg. 144)” His pain manifests itself because he is unhappy inside and his relationship is falling apart. Clearly his injuries later in the story are psychosomatic but he certainly exhibits the tendencies of a hypochondriac as well. I state this because Charlie uses his perceived lack of health to try and convince Linda to revert to her role in the relationship as the person who takes care of him. “He told himself that what he was about to do wasn’t so much calling for help as giving information…She would be waiting for him after the MRI, with flowers and magazines because she was a great believer in brightening a sick room…it used to be that if he had so much as a cold she’d turn into Cherry Ames, girl nurse -bringing him milk shakes and toast, because that’s what her mother brought her when she was sick… (pgs 166-67).”
Charlie finally starts to grow up by realizing that he has to let Linda go and return to New York City. This growth is represented by his resisting the urge to call her before he goes in for his MRI examination. While he still has much self-examination and personal growth ahead of him, this is an important first step. When he is undergoing the MRI his resolution to return to New York reflects the late-arriving understanding that he is better off being back in New York than in San Francisco trying to save a doomed marriage. The MRI functions as a kind of oracle, giving him the answer to the question that has been gnawing at his mind, “Where was that girl (pg. 144).” The girl who had loved him was gone. It was time to end his exile in San Francisco.