What is the theme of Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman"?
Gail Godwin’s short story “A Sorrowful Woman” deals with a number of themes, including the following:
- ambivalent feelings, as the opening two sentences suggest:
- One winter evening she looked at them: the husband durable, receptive, gentle; the child a tender golden three. The sight of them made her so sad and sick she did not want to see them ever again.
- cooperation in marriage, as the second paragraph suggests.
- the tensions that can result from being a mother and wife, as the third paragraph implies.
- the comfort of having an understanding spouse, as the fourth paragraph suggests.
- the idea that parenthood is not entirely pleasurable, as the fifth paragraph suggests.
- the wife’s growing lack of control, which is contrasted with the husband’s consistent calmness and adaptability (as the seventh paragraph implies).
- the contrast between the moods and personalities of the hired girl, the father, and the child (on the one hand) and those of the mother (on the other hand).
- the mother’s growing impetuousness and (self-) destructive behavior, as when she fires the young nanny.
- the exceptional devotion of the man, both as a husband and as a father, as suggested by his behavior after the nanny is fired.
- the consolations (but perhaps also the escapism) provided by art, as when the woman’s reading and writing are described.
- the increasingly odd behavior of the woman (which creates growing suspense), as when she no longer wants to see her own child and husband.
- The even more odd behavior of the woman when she engages in a flurry of activity just before apparently committing suicide.
The absence of commentary by the narrator (aside from the opening epigraph, which may imply sympathy for the woman) makes it difficult to know how to respond to this story. Is it simply a slice of one particular family’s life? Does it suggest some larger meaning about life in general? Should we feel sympathetic toward the mother? Is she genuinely sick? If so, why did neither she nor the husband seek professional help for her? (He doesn’t seem surprised by her apparent suicide.) Is the woman simply selfish, or can she truly not help herself? These are the kinds of questions the story might raise in the minds of some readers, and raising questions – rather than answering them – seems to be the story’s main effect. Many will find it difficult to feel much sympathy for this woman, but perhaps we are meant to question such a reaction. If there is a larger theme to this story, perhaps it is “the mystery of life.”
By the way, a story worth comparing and contrasting with this one is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Gail Godwin's story examines the rejection of the traditional roles assigned to women—to be self-sacrificing wives and mothers—and the toll that this rejection can take on women. The woman in the story concludes early on that this self-sacrifice is not her destiny. She gradually withdraws from her husband and son and embraces her solitude, though perhaps not fully enjoying it. Ultimately, she is unable to find fulfillment in either the domestic world of her home or the solitude of her room, despite her husband's extraordinary accommodation of her increasing demands. The fact that she must be drugged to sleep suggests that she is deeply unhappy and cannot identify what would provide purpose in her life. She is the "sorrowful woman" because she finds no lasting relief or fulfillment in any of the ways she tries to approach her life. The manner in which the woman behaves before her suicide suggests that she carries guilt for her failure to fulfill the role she had once consented to in marrying her husband and bearing a child.