Best known for her first novel, the highly popular The Women's Room (1977), French is an author of controversial works that provoke both enthusiastic and antagonistic responses from critical audiences. A former homemaker whose academic aspirations led her to Harvard University during the politically turbulent 1960s, French draws upon her experiences with motherhood, divorce, academia, and political activism to evoke the concerns of women who rebel against domesticity, sexual submission, and discrimination in the workplace. While some critics denounce French's ideological fiction and nonfiction as polemical, her works are widely read and often examined in women's studies courses.
French was born November 21, 1929, in New York City, to a poor family of Polish descent. She received a bachelor's degree from Hofstra College (now Hofstra University) in Long Island in 1951. French married Robert M. French Jr., with whom she has two children. French returned to Hofstra to earn her master's degree in 1964, while also teaching English at the college from 1964 to 1968. In 1967 French divorced her husband and enrolled in the English graduate program at Harvard University, receiving her Ph.D. in 1972. French used her personal experiences as the basis for the central character of Mira in The Women's Room; Mira also divorced her husband and enrolled at Harvard in the same year.
From 1972 to 1976 French taught English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She also served as the Mellon fellow in English at Harvard from 1976 to 1977 and as artist in residence at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Study in 1972. Aside from her novels and nonfiction works, French has contributed essays and articles to such journals as Soundings and Ohio Review, often under the pseudonym Mara Solwoska. In 1992 French was diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer. She recovered from the illness and the experience later became the basis for A Season in Hell: A Memoir (1998).
One year after French published her first work—The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses" (1976), a critical reexamination of Joyce's novel—she published The Women's Room, which is generally considered one of the most influential novels of the modern feminist movement. The novel follows the evolution of Mira, a repressed and submissive woman, who is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. Mira eventually divorces her neglectful husband, returns to college, and joins a group of feminist activists. Ranging from the stultifying suburban milieu of the 1950s to the male-dominated counter-culture of the 1960s, The Women's Room depicts sexism in America as a pervasive and pernicious social force that acts to advance the oppression and exploitation of women. Through the various female characters in Mira's group, French illustrates the psychological and physical abuses frequently inflicted on women and recreates the consciousness-raising dialogues of the era that inspired many women to take up political activism. Extending French's discussion of moderate feminism is a more radical orientation represented by Val, an eloquent member of the group who becomes militant after her daughter is sexually assaulted. When the rape trial becomes more of an indictment of the young woman than of the rapist, Val joins a women's separatist colony that advocates the violent overthrow of patriarchal American society.
French continued her commentary on gender relations in her second novel, The Bleeding Heart (1980), a chronicle of a love affair between Dolores, a divorced feminist writer seeking an egalitarian relationship, and Victor, a married executive with traditional values. To cultivate a healthy relationship, each confronts past tragedies and failures in their marriages and parenthood, and Dolores persuades Victor to reassess his assumptions about gender roles.
French examines the origins of societal male dominance in Shakespeare's Division of Experience (1981), a collection of broadly theoretical essays. The work asserts that the woman's capacity to bear children has historically aligned her with nature and, consequently, has left her vulnerable to man's compulsion to exercise power over nature.
French again combines her interest in political doctrine and scholarly pursuits in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (1985), which reinterprets world history through a feminist perspective. Often compared to the metahistorical essays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel Foucault, Beyond Power surveys such diverse disciplines as anthropology, medicine, political science, philosophy, astronomy, zoology, and law in its argument against patriarchal domination. According to French, early egalitarian, mother-centered societies were overthrown by a conspiracy of men obsessed with a desire for control over women and nature. With the pursuit of power as its impetus, patriarchal culture enslaved women and devised social structures emphasizing male-centered religion, property rights, and the division of labor. As a result, French argues, women have suffered in every human society from ancient Greece to modern China.
In Her Mother's Daughter (1987), French examines emotional and familial bonds among four generations of American women, beginning in the early 1900s. Frances, a widowed Polish immigrant who is forced by poverty to send three of her four children to orphanages, consigns her bitterness to her only remaining child, Isabelle. In turn, Isabelle's overprotective nurturing prompts her rebellious daughter to achieve success in a competitive male world, while ultimately neglecting her own children. French invests her narrative with myriad domestic details to demonstrate the sobering effects of unwanted pregnancies, abusive husbands, and tedious household responsibilities.
French's The War against Women (1992) surveys the oppression of women on a global scale. Considering such activities as ritualized female genital mutilation in Africa and the burning of brides in India, along with economic disparities between women and men, French argues that women have become disempowered and overwhelmed by patriarchal societies.
French's novel Our Father (1994) depicts a troubled family reunion that occurs after a wealthy man, Stephen Upton, suffers a stroke, inspiring a visit from his four estranged daughters—all of whom have different mothers. Each hoping to gain either money or acknowledgment from her father, the women initially compete and argue among themselves. The daughters' discovery that they have all been the victims of incest during their childhood, however, becomes a source of bonding and mutual support.
My Summer with George (1996) follows Hermione Beldame, a successful, sixty-year-old romance novelist, who meets a handsome newspaper editor named George Johnson one summer at Columbia University. Hermione spends the next few months creating a romanticized vision of her relationship and future with George, only to become disappointed after she realizes that George is not the man she imagined him to be.
A Season in Hell: A Memoir recounts French's personal battle with and eventual triumph over metastasized esophageal cancer. French discusses her various medical treatments and the resulting effects of her aggressive chemotherapy, including brittle bones, kidney problems, and diabetes. The work focuses on the experience of being a patient, with French asserting that many doctors, regardless of gender, are insensitive and aloof to the pain experienced by the people under their care.
In 2002 French released the first volume of the three-volume series From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women. Bringing together scholarly and academic information, the series offers a careful critical examination of issues pertaining to the history of women throughout the world since the dawn of time. The first volume, Origins (2002), examines the roles of women from the advent of recorded history to the Middle Ages. The second volume, The Masculine Mystique (2002), follows women's history from the feudal era to the French Revolution. The final volume, Paradises and Infernos (2003), covers the nineteenth century to the modern era.
Critical assessment of French's oeuvre has been sharply divided, inspiring numerous debates over the validity of her fiction and nonfiction. Although many feminist critics have praised French as a groundbreaking pioneer in the field of women's studies, other critics have charged that French's works are belligerent, artless, and ideologically clumsy. Detractors of The Women's Room have criticized French for her sympathetic portrayal of the violently militant Val and have argued that the novel is virulently anti-male and grim. However, several scholars have noted that the novel's immense popularity confirms its integrity, and they have continued to regard the novel as one of the most important works in the feminist canon. Many reviewers have praised French's candid illustrations of mid-life anxiety and her examination of sexual stereotypes in The Bleeding Heart, though some have argued that the novel is overly rhetorical and unconvincing. Critical reaction to the essays in Beyond Power has been diverse and emphatic, with a number of commentators faulting French's arguments as fallacious and inane, while others have defended the collection as innovative and erudite. Despite some assertions that her work holds a militant and uncompromising bias, French has remained a major figure in modern feminist studies.
The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses" (criticism) 1976
The Women's Room (novel) 1977
The Bleeding Heart (novel) 1980
Shakespeare's Division of Experience (essays and criticism) 1981
Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (essays and criticism) 1985
Her Mother's Daughter (novel) 1987
The War against Women (nonfiction) 1992
Our Father (novel) 1994
My Summer with George (novel) 1996
A Season in Hell: A Memoir (memoir) 1998
From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume I: Origins (history and criticism) 2002
From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume II: The Masculine Mystique (history and criticism) 2002
From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume III: Paradises and Infernos (history and criticism) 2003
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SOURCE: French, Marilyn. “Is There a Feminist Aesthetic?” In Aesthetics in Feminist Perspective, edited by Hilde Hein and Carolyn Korsmeyer, pp. 68-76. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.
In the following essay, originally published in 1990, French discusses defining “feminist” works of art and the characteristics she feels necessary to judge a piece of literature as feminist.
Literary art that is identifiably feminist approaches reality from a feminist perspective and endorses female experience. A feminist perspective demystifies patriarchal assumptions about the nature of human beings, their relation to nature, and the relation of physical and moral qualities to each other. To endorse female experience, the artist must defy or stretch traditional literary conventions, which often means offending or alienating readers. Traditional literary conventions are rooted in philosophical assumptions several thousand years old and still widely current. A third principle of feminist art—which not all feminists subscribe to—is accessibility. When feminist art is difficult, the reason usually lies not in purposeful obfuscation, but in the poverty of our language of feeling, and the difficulty of rendering feeling.
It is questionable whether the terms and issues of traditional aesthetics are applicable to feminist art. Some...
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AMANDA LOHREY (ESSAY DATE 1979)
SOURCE: Lohrey, Amanda. "The Liberated Heroine: New Varieties of Defeat?" Meanjin 38, no. 3 (1979): 294-304.
In the following excerpt, Lohrey examines the plot and themes of The Women's Room, and comments on Diana Trilling's assertion that feminist works should avoid "existential despair."
As Patricia Meyer Spacks has noted, novels by women writers are an area where we have not had time to develop aesthetic distance, and any collection of them will often do no more than exemplify the eclecticism of modern fiction. This is true if one is surveying the full range (Murdoch, Lessing, Spark, Oates et al) but within that wide spectrum the last decade has seen the emergence of a clearly recognisable genre of American women's fiction—the biographical novel of the single heroic female self. This is most often a rambling episodic ego-portrait with no revealing structure that moves on the one unvarying pulse of feeling through to an indifferent or 'liberating' end. The best of these is probably Lisa Alther's Kinflicks; notable among the rest are the Canadian Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, Erica Jong's How To Save Your Own Life, Francine du Plessix Gray's Lovers and Tyrants and Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of An Ex-Prom Queen....
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KAREN ALKALAY-GUT (REVIEW DATE FALL 1983)
SOURCE: Alkalay-Gut, Karen. "The 'Stirring Conversation': American Literature and The Bleeding Heart." Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal 9, no. 1 (fall 1983): 129-31.
In the following review, Alkalay-Gut examines the plot, structure, and characters in The Bleeding Heart, concluding that French's examination of gender roles in the novel is a "step in the right direction."
When Marilyn French's The Bleeding Heart was first reviewed, the major criticism levelled against it was that there was too much talking about issues. "Overly polemical," says Julia Klein of The New Republic.1 "… It is hard to believe it is her incessant rhetoric that instructs either her lover or her reader," says Rosellen Brown in The New York Times Book Review.2 Yet R. Z. Sheppard notes, at the conclusion of her review, "paradoxically much of the dialogue works … attentive male readers will discover why so many women are now saying 'Yes, yes' when there's 'No, no' in their eyes."3 And this is precisely the point of the endless conversations.
Conversations between men and women are rare and usually stilted in American Literature. When they exist, the point of the conversation is not to communicate...
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KATHERINE PAYANT (REVIEW DATE 1992)
SOURCE: Payant, Katherine. "Mothers and Daughters in Recent Fiction by Women." Philological Papers 38 (1992): 212-25.
In the following excerpt, Payant discusses the plot and characterizations in Her Mother's Daughter, noting differences between this book and The Women's Room.
In the 1970s the new feminist movement affected women's novels in a number of ways, but perhaps the most obvious influence was the predominance of the bildungsroman—the novel of development tracing a protagonist struggling for individuation in patriarchy. These novels, written by white middle-class women who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, recounted the heroine's oppression in childhood, adolescence, marriage, and motherhood. They dealt with restrictions on women in all areas of American life—the double standard, stereotyping of women in the media, limitations on women's reproductive freedom, educational and career barriers faced by women, and above all, the mistreatment of women by men in love and marriage.
Although generalizations are often risky, these novels seemed to closely fit this description. Examples include Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973), Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1975), Francine du Plessix Gray's Lovers and Tyrants (1976), Marge...
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Dunlap, Lauren Glen. Review of The War against Women, by Marilyn French. Belles Lettres 8, no. 1 (fall 1992): 20-1.
Praises French's focus on the injustices suffered by women in The War against Women.
French, Marilyn. "Women in Language." Soundings 59, no. 3 (fall 1976): 329-44.
Examination of the semantic differences among such words as "man," "lady," and "gentleman," focusing on the ways words change in context and their impact on defining gender.
——. "Muzzled Women." College Literature 14, no. 3 (1987): 219-29.
Discusses several prominent women authors, ironically noting that female characters are seldom portrayed by women writers as having fulfilling, complete, rewarding lives.
McDaniel, Maude. "Sisters and Other Strangers." Chicago Tribune Books (2 January 1994): section 14, p. 5.
Compliments French's prose in Our Father, commenting that the work is the most balanced of French's novels.
Peat, Irene M. Review of A Season in Hell, by Marilyn French. British Medical Journal 318, no. 7179 (30 January 1999): 336.
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