In Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman", does the husband's response to his wife's behavior help her, or does it hurt her? Explain.
In the short story “A Sorrowful Woman,” the husband’s response to his wife’s behavior does little to help her recover from her depressive episodes. She learns to avoid her duties in the household, preferring to hide behind the protection offered her by her condition. Every time she feels depressed, she knows that her husband will understand her reasoning for not wanting to attend to her household chores; she knows that he will go out of his way to make her happy and comfortable. He, in effect, reinforces her depressive episodes, as he teaches her to associate sickness with comfort. She learns to expect sleeping draughts, consisting of “a little glass of cognac followed by a big glass of dark liquid,” made for her each time she falls sick. This becomes a kind of routine over time. The text states that the sleeping draught became “a nightly thing.” Thus, instead of facing her troubles, she runs from them.
In order to relieve herself from her motherly duties, she hits her son in her husband’s presence. The text states that “she had known she was going to hit him when the father would see.” Her husband responds to her behavior by employing the services of a nanny. He says that he “wants her to feel freer.” The nanny takes over all of her duties. Afterwards, she limits communication between herself and her family to written notes that are slipped under her door.
Her sickness takes on a new turn when she decides that she does not need the services of a nanny anymore. She fires the nanny and works hard at completing chores around the house. Finally, she dies, trying to do everything that the nanny had done.
Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman" is a strongly polemical feminist story, which is making an argument concerning the nature of patriarchy. The couple in the story are not given names in order to emphasize that they function more as "everyman" and "everywoman" than as individuated characters.
In order to show that the situation is caused by the operation of patriarchy as a system, Godwin makes the husband a kind and good person within the constraints of the social system in which the couple is embedded. Unfortunately, from Godwin's point of view, men are also victims of patriarchy because of the way it binds them within limited gender roles.
Far from making the wife's situation better, the husband's kindness hurts her, and may even be responsible for her death. Her illness is a function of being trapped in the constricted role of a wife and mother in patriarchal society. Although she feels trapped in that role, and revulsion towards it, the very kindness of her husband ties her even more tightly to the very role she is trying to escape; it would be much easier to leave a bad husband or nasty child than to step out of the role of wife and mother in a loving, decent family, and yet the role itself is what is destroying the woman.