In what ways can Mary Lawson's Crow Lake be interpreted using a feminist criticism lens, especially with respect to patriarchy, essentialism, irony, androgyny, etc.?
When interpreting a text through the lens of feminist criticism, one is trying to see how the text aligns with feminist ideals. More specifically, as Louis Tyson is quoted as explaining, one is examining the ways in which the literary work portrays culture as being responsible for the "economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" ("Feminist Criticism"). While Mary Lawson's Crow Lake certainly can be viewed as expressing some feminist ideals, we can actually also see ways in which the themes argue contrary to feminist ideals.
A patriarchy is a social structure in which the male figure, or father figure, has the most authority over a family, city, country, or any other aspect of society. One example of a clear patriarchy in the book is with respect to the Pye family. Within the Pye family, the father not only has supreme control but is also extremely violent, and his violence leads to the oppression and suffering of his family members. One example of oppression can be seen in the fact that his violence leads his daughter Maria to establish a strong relationship with Matt because she needs a substitute patriarchal figure, but that relationship leads to an ill-timed young pregnancy. While Matt does marry her, Maria is never able to escape the patriarchal social structure she's been subjected to.
Similarly, in the beginning of the novel, when the Morrison children's parents die, the eldest brother, Luke, decides to give up his scholarship at a teachers' college in order to become patriarch of the family, thus keeping the family together. However, unlike the Pye family, the two female figures do not suffer as a result of Luke taking charge of the family. In fact, contrary to typical feminist literature, the eldest daughter Kate does not find herself oppressed but rather finds herself being the only member of the family who pursues her education and a career, leaving behind the rest of her family to continue their rural farming life at Crow Lake. In Kate's mind, continuing farming life is oppressive, while her path of education is the liberating path. Hence, we can say that Kate behaves in ways contrary to typical feminist literature because she is not oppressed by her patriarchal society and instead rises above her farming society.
Another way in which she behaves contrary to feminist literature can be seen in the fact that, by the end of the novel, she actually disagrees with her own actions. We also even learn that, prior to the Morrison family's parents' deaths, the Morrison family actually had a matriarch, meaning a leading female figure, and that matriarch was Great-Grandmother Morrison. We learn that Great-Grandmother Morrison had a "love for knowledge," and it's because of Great-Grandmother Morrison's love of knowledge that Kate decided to pursue both her education and her career. Hence, the novel also contradicts most feminist literature in that the Morrison family had a matriarch who inspired the fulfilling actions of Kate. However, more importantly, by the end of the novel, Kate decides her actions were not as fulfilling as she thought they were, which also contradicts feminism ideals. Kate realizes she was using her great-grandmother's love of knowledge to judge others, not just herself but her entire family, even her beloved brother Matt. She judges her brother wrongly because she sees him as having wasted his intellect and education because he got Maria pregnant and decided to marry her rather than leave to pursue his education. As a result, Matt has lived a life working on the farm. But by the end of the novel, Kate realizes her judgements about him had been wrong and that Matt was happy working on the farm with his son, as we see when she sees the two of them together and comments to herself, "Two remarkable men, deep in conversation, walking slowly across the dust of the farmyard. It was not a tragic picture. Definitely not" (final chapter). Hence, from a feminist perspective, Kate and Matt have actually reversed roles. Matt, the male, becomes oppressed by family obligations and winds up needing to stay home, while Kate, the woman, goes off to pursue her career, like a man would. But more importantly, author Lawson is pointing out that Matt, just because he remained at home, is not actually oppressed. Lawson is arguing the exact opposite of feminist literature by placing value on home life and family. In the end, Kate regrets her decision to neglect family in favor of pursuing her education, which also contradicts feminist ideals.
Therefore, while it can be said that we certainly can use a feminist criticism lens to interpret some of Lawson's work, it should also be noted that Lawson's themes actually contradict feminist ideals.