How does the theme of self-discovery play out in the narrative of Gail Godwin's "A Sorrowful Woman"?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One might argue that the theme of self-discovery in Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman" plays out as the young woman breaks ties with the obligations society has imposed on her to be a wife and mother. As she breaks ties with her obligations, she discovers she wants nothing more than independence.

As the story progresses, the young woman feels more and more that she is sick of the presence of both her three-year-old son and her husband. Her husband very lovingly understands and treats her as a woman who is ill. Each night, he gives her a sleeping draught and takes upon himself more and more of her responsibilities during the day. When she grows sick of the nanny they hire to care for the boy, he even takes on the role of a single working father.

At first, the young woman is content just to see her son very little. The nanny brings him into her bedroom to see her for a short time only twice a day. Her husband pays courtship to her by frequently inviting her out to dinner. But, soon, she grows even more distant from both her son and her husband. She even moves out of their bedroom and into the room that had been occupied by the nanny. Her growing distance from her husband and son are evidence that, as she phrases it, "I'm not myself anymore." If she feels she is no longer herself, then she is at a state in which she must discover a new self, which illustrates the theme of self-discovery.

In the nanny's room, she begins to explore new selves by staring out the window, seeing new things, reading new books, writing poetry, and behaving at times as the nanny had behaved in the room. The narrator describes her exploration of new selves in the following:

All day long she stayed in the white room. She was a young queen, a virgin in a tower, she was the previous inhabitant, the girl with all the energies. She tried these personalities on like costumes, then discarded them.

As she continues to explore new selves, she grows distant from her husband and son to the point that she no longer sees them at all and only accepts notes from them. Her exploration of selves and continued distance from her husband and son shows that her only desire is to rid herself of her obligations imposed on her by society and to be what she wants to be--independent. At one point, in secret, while her family is out, she returns to performing the obligations society has imposed on her by baking, cooking, knitting, and doing the laundry; but doing these things displeases her so much that she commits suicide. Her suicide further demonstrates that it was her discovery of new selves not imposed on her by society that kept her alive.