Gail Godwin

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What is the abstract in the short story, "A Sorrowful Woman" by Gail Godwin?

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Here is an alternate abstract (if by abstract you mean a brief summary).

The story revolves around a mother, a father, and their child. One evening, the mother becomes sick at the sight of her husband and child, claiming that she never wants to see them again. Her husband tries to be understanding and takes over some of her "motherly" duties while she rests. Her condition continues to worsen until she eventually strikes her child. The father, realizing that she is seriously ill, hires a live-in baby-sitter and allows the mother to stay closed up in her room.

Eventually, the mother requests that the father fire the baby-sitter, though she still won't leave her room. The father takes on all of the traditional "motherly" duties, such as cleaning the house and fixing the meals. Finally, the mother decides that she cannot bear even the occasional visit from her husband and decides that her husband and son may only communicate with her through notes that are slipped under her door. Even now, her husband continues to be understanding of her feelings and respects her request. 

After this goes on for some time, the wife feels compelled to be a "proper" wife and mother once again. One day, she works extremely hard to bake, do laundry, make clothes, and paint pictures for her husband and son. When the father and son come home, they are overjoyed by all of the work she did and quickly rush to her room. Upon opening the door, however, they find her laying dead upon the bed. Ultimately, this story about a woman who was never meant to play the role of "wife" or "mother" shows us just how damaging societal expectations can be.

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An 'abstract' in literature may refer to a summary of the essential elements in a literary work or it could relate to the expression of an idea which is not perceivable by the five sentences (i.e. an intangible quality). In terms of the second definition, the abstract could thus be the theme or symbolism conveyed by the text.

I assume that the question relates to the second definition. In this regard, then, Gail Godwin's tragic short story, "A Sorrowful Woman", explores, firstly, the idea of the destructive forces innate in society's expectations, namely that in a paternalistic society, women are expected to play the role of dutiful spouses, caregivers and nurturers without question.

It is clear from the outset that the mother and wife in the story cannot cope with the duties imposed upon her. The image she conveys is one of sadness and depression. She is clearly mentally ill and withdraws from her husband and son. The husband makes all sorts of attempts to encourage her and take care of her, all to no avail. When he calls in external help in the form of a young girl to perform the mother's tasks, the woman expresses her displeasure and the girl is dismissed. Her husband then takes it upon himself to perform these duties.

There is no clear reason why exactly the mother is the way she is. One can only assume that she has never been prepared for this role or that she feels trapped. It is significant, however, that she never expresses any desire to leave the family. All she does is withdraw and live in a fantasy world.

The realities of life do not seem important to her and even everyday events are generally dismissed, such as when she witnesses an old woman scratching around for food. She does not see the contrast to her situation and does not consider how fortunate she is. The author deliberately includes such events to indicate how overwhelmed the mother is and that her privileged situation means nothing to her, since it is not what she really wants.

Godwin leaves us in the dark about what the woman's true desires actually are. There is a suggestion, though, that the husband's persistent care and attention is a deliberate attempt by him to keep his wife in a constant state of discomfit. He provides her with medication and this leaves the reader with a nagging suspicion that he is as much responsible for his wife's condition as she is. The reference to 'a big glass of dark liquid' which he plies her with every night, has an ominous ring to it. It is these actions which suggest a second, pernicious theme: the idea of possession. The husband sees the wife as an object which he can manipulate and he maliciously sets about maintaining control of her.

The husband never seeks external advice. There is no mention of a doctor or psychiatrist who he consults for a diagnosis and assistance. He is the one who medicates her. The person whom he hires to assume his wife's duties is young and, therefore, less inclined to ask questions. These actions imply a subtle, yet deliberate and malicious purpose on his part.

It is ironic that the husband refers to his wife as a 'cloistered queen' when he is, in fact, the one responsible for her condition. Her constant attempts at isolation is an intimation that she is aware of her husband's manipulation but cannot get away from him entirely since she is both mentally and physically weak. Her only escape in the end, is death. The cause of her death is, however, also questionable. One cannot say, for certain, that she committed suicide and, therefore, cleaned up the house and prepared a feast so that she may go in a 'blaze of glory' or whether this signified an actual turning point where she had decided to, finally, meet the demands set on her and show that she was prepared to do the necessary with aplomb, or that she just wanted to demonstrate what she was capable of.

In the end, the husband's clinical actions when he checks her eyelids, listens for a heartbeat and feels her wrists, is probably the best indication of how chillingly evil and controlling he is. 

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