Marilyn French’s central intention is the stretching of readers’ moral sense by making them think about and examine the unpleasant aspects of men’s and women’s relationships. Her portrait of the enculturation of a typical American girl in the 1950’s is startling in terms of its protagonist’s ordinariness. Mira, the girl who thinks the world will give her a beautiful view, is presented as an Everywoman who, like her many friends, suffers from America’s gender dynamics. As in such earlier protesting tales as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), French propels an anguished girl into an unhappy adulthood. French widens and deepens the theme, however, by her insistence on a broad span of time and a wide panorama that replicates the pattern of female suffering. Called mad, oversexed, undersexed, boring, or stupid, such women either refuse to submit and be destroyed by insensitive men or are driven “over the line.”

Yet French’s first novel is not written as an antimale polemic; the narrator repeatedly pauses in her narrative to mull over questions about men’s motivation and perceptions, how life must appear to them and hence the inevitability of their viewpoint. Mira herself is a producer of male “childflesh,” the mother of sons whom she cherishes and hopes to make into androgynous gentlemen. Unlike their father, who cannot “equate the act” of sex with feeling, Mira tries to teach her boys that it is possible to grow into more than their father, her friends’ husbands, or Barbie’s Ken, “clean-cut and polite and blank.” In fact, Mira is no reverse misogynist; she “distrusts generalized hatred” and faults Val for saying that “all men are the enemy” after she has been maddened by grief over her daughter’s rape, both literally and then by the patriarchal system. Mira’s more reasonable view is that men need emotional education; her long narrative insists that the American Dream must not “eradicate” women in order for them to become men’s possessions. It is the unquestioned political and economic gender system which must be changed so that men will cease being the thoughtlessly superior group automatically deferred to by subordinate women.

French’s novel galvanized readers in 1977 when the book was...

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