"Once upon a time there was a wife and mother one too many time"—Gail Godwin’s "A Sorrowful Woman" (1976) has a fairytale beginning. Familiar with the way such tales run, we anticipate the heroine—the wife and mother—to be trapped by a villain or under the spell of a witch. Or perhaps this is a modern twist on the fairy tale, with the villains being domestic drudgery and an unsympathetic husband. However, as the story moves on, we quickly learn that the woman is not under the peril that fairytale characters often found themselves in. She is in fact married to her prince charming, with an adorable child in tow.
Her husband durable, receptive, gentle; the child a tender golden three.
Yet, the very sight of them sickens her. A realization begins to dawn on us. In this story, the woman is both the princess and the wicked stepmother rolled into one. It is hard to feel sympathy for such a character, whose sadness and passivity persist despite a sensitive, solicitous husband who is eager to relieve her of household duties while she recuperates from her unnamed sorrow. Her husband "brings her breakfast in bed," understands that his wife needs a "rest from us," and, when her situation worsens, finds the "perfect girl," an efficient live-in help. Yet none of these actions make a dent in the woman's misery. Our sympathy is further tested in her treatment of her child, whom she seems to cringe from and treats with a combination of emotional and physical violence.
After supper several nights later, she hit the child. She had known she was going to do it when the father would see. "I'm sorry" she said, collapsing on the floor. The weeping child had run to hide.
Obviously, hers is not a character designed to earn our sympathy, and yet she does. Why so? I think one reason we empathize with the woman is because it is clear she is locked in her own, private hell. She is cut-off from her golden little family, her husband’s love, and her child’s sweetness. Even though her situation is specific, her feelings are universal. Anybody who’s ever had a brush with depression can recognize the woman’s inexplicable “sorrow.” She is contained in what the writer Sylvia Plath termed the “bell jar” of depression, with the entire world outside turned into a bad dream.
In such a state, the husband’s solicitousness itself begins to frustrate us: to help his wife, he takes over the bulk of the parenting and lets her fire the live-in help; yet he does not do the one thing that would truly help his wife. He does not seek medical attention for her. We see the husband battling the symptoms of his wife’s condition, but without trying to get help for their root cause. Perhaps he thinks of her “sorrow” is a womanly mood-swing. Perhaps this was the prevalent attitude in the time in which the story was written. However, to a contemporary audience, it is obvious that the woman is probably in the grip of clinical depression. Since her child is still young, we can assume this is post-natal depression, a serious condition that can last years after childbirth. Whatever the exact nature of her sickness, the woman does not get the help she really needs.
Our sympathy for her is further amplified through the reveal at the story’s climax. For sometime in the second half of the story, the woman has had a renewed burst of energy. She has found some secret purpose, even though it is hidden from her husband, child, and the reader.
Now the days were too short. She was always busy. She woke with the first bird. Worked till the sun set. No time for hair brushing. Her fingers raced the hours.
It is puzzling that this energy does not extend to her husband and child, though; in fact, she especially turns away from the child.
"I don't think I can see him anymore," she whispered sadly to the man. And the husband turned away but recovered admirably and said, "Of course, I see."
These lines are portentous. In the very next scene we see the fruits of her devastating labor revealed. The husband and child come home to a fully-stocked pantry and a rearranged, perfected household.
The man and boy came home and found five loaves of warm bread, a roast stuffed turkey, a glazed ham, three pies of different fillings, eight molds of the boy's favorite custard, two weeks supply of fresh-laundered sheets and shirts and towels, two hand-knitted sweaters (both of the same grey color), a sheath of marvelous watercolor beasts accompanied by mad and fanciful stories nobody could ever make up again, and a tablet full of love sonnets addressed to the man. The house smelled redolently of renewal and spring.
This is what the woman has been busy at work with, in her own way finally being the perfect wife and mother, almost as if to make up for her past perceived inadequacy. Here, we get a late sense of the social pressure of being the perfect housewife that has no doubt played its part in the woman's sickness. But it is not just the stocked pantry: as the child and husband soon learn, the scope of her finished work is achieved with her lifeless body in the next room. In killing herself, the woman has granted her family a reprieve.
The tragic ending brings home for us the measure of her mental illness. Our sympathy for her also rises because now we interpret her actions towards her child in a new light. Perhaps she thought she was doing him a favor in distancing him from her mental condition. Perhaps she thought she was beyond rescue and was giving the child a chance at renewal by ridding him of her. In her own way, she has achieved the “happily ever after” of her macabre fairy tale, killing the ogre she had herself become. Because we know all these to be the altered thought processes of a depressed person who was not treated, the woman becomes greatly sympathetic to us.