Bernadette Fox, the central character of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” gives us a story about ambition and following your dreams, and what that means for you and the people around you. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” by Maria Semple, tackled this subject first in book form, in 2014.
A movie adaption, starring Cate Blanchett as Bernadette, was released in August 2019. Bernadette’s story teaches some valuable lessons for everyone, whether it’s you or someone you know who is going down a destructive path.
Mental Health and Lack of Creativity
The movie starts in the middle of Bernadette’s life and downward spiral, long after her ambitious, exciting youth. Bernadette used to be an award-winning architect, and she was an inspiration to many at the time as a woman in a male-dominated business. However, when one of her famous, amazing houses was bought, only to be knocked down and used as a parking lot, Bernadette loses her creative vision, her ambition and, eventually, her mental stability. When life continues to throw challenges at her, including fertility problems, miscarriages and a sick child, Bernadette’s mental health deteriorates even further.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” irrevocably links Bernadette’s creativity and ambition with her depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. When Bernadette was creating, she was lively, excited and tenacious, but when she wasn’t, she was living in a dilapidated house in a city she disliked, knowingly causing a landslide into her neighbor’s house and falling asleep on a pharmacy couch after they wouldn’t give her a prescription for, essentially, Haldol, an antipsychotic that the Soviet Union used to break prisoners into submission.
Bernadette’s mentor, Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne), gives Bernadette some advice that encapsulates her story. He tells her: “People like you must create. If you don’t create, you will become a menace to society.” This quote, which has become famous in its own right, solidifies the link between Bernadette’s creativity and mental health.
The importance of this link is more than apparent when Bernadette regains her passion to create, and the difference in her mental health is remarkable. When she calls her husband and daughter from a research base in Antarctica, she is noticeably more vibrant and alive than she was before. Bernadette says it best, when she talks about when she learned that a new Antarctic research station needed designing: “My heart started racing, not the bad kind of heart racing, like I’m going to die. But the good kind of heart racing, like, ‘Hello, can I help you with something? If not, please step aside because I’m about to kick the s—t out of life.’”
Ambition and What It Can Do
But there’s another path to consider. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” isn’t a story solely about Bernadette, after all; it’s also about her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), and her daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson). Elgie’s path is different from Bernadette’s, but it’s still got its own problems, and while this plotline get as much attention in the movie as it does in the book, Elgie’s story has still got lessons for us to learn.
Following the destruction of Bernadette’s house and her mental stability, Elgie throws himself into his dreams and ambition, working at Microsoft. He’s the opposite of Bernadette in this way: He’s rarely home, while she’s rarely outside; he’s always working and completing projects, while she’s complacent and directionless. This is apparent during one of the first scenes, in which Bee presents her idea to go to Antarctica over winter break. Both parents assume the other one will object — Bernadette thinks Elgie has too much work to do, and Elgie thinks Bernadette won’t want to leave the house and be surrounded by people.
And while Elgie is much more stable than Bernadette in terms of mental health, his dreams and ambition come at a cost. His relationship with his daughter has become strained due to his long working hours, and they fight a lot when Bernadette goes missing. His work makes him miss the warning signs of Bernadette’s mental health. It’s made clear by a 14-year-old Bee that she has always known her mother the way she is at the beginning of the story — misanthropic, anxious, depressed — and yet Elgie doesn’t take serious action for way too long, until the point that an in-patient psychiatric facility is a reasonable option.
Finding the Middle Path
So while Bernadette’s path connects a lack of creativity and ambition to depression and complacency, Elgie’s path connects too much ambition and work to family strain and not being present. It’s the story of Icarus — fly too high and the sun will melt your wings, but fly too low and the water will soak them and drag you down. Either way, you can’t fly anymore. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” focuses on the need for a middle path, one where you don’t become directionless or a workaholic.
Both Bernadette and Elgie find this middle path at the end of the movie, when they meet up in Antarctica. After Bernadette escapes from the mental health intervention and goes to Antarctica alone, she finds her ambition and passion by building a new research station. She throws herself into it, but she doesn’t fly too high. Instead of forgetting about her family and leaping into her newfound work, she calls them and says that she’s only going to spend the required five weeks in the South Pole, as long as they say it’s okay. She’s making sure her family is part of her decisions before she leaps, finding the balance between ambition and loved ones.
Elgie does the same, in a different way. When he and Bee are searching Antarctica for Bernadette, he tells her that he’s given up the major project he’d been working on at Microsoft, which is what got him so far in his work (he even gave a TED talk about it). They moved the project to another division and, instead of chasing it like a workaholic would, he lets it go and resolves to be more present at home with his family.
So, in conclusion, what does “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” say about following your dreams? The story warns against the dangers of ambition while proclaiming it as essential, and it shows the audience what happens when you fly too high or fly too low.
Both Bernadette’s path and Elgie’s path are not the right or healthy ones, not at the beginning. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” shows the need for the middle path.