What is the woman's problem in Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman"? How does the reader discover what it is?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman" was published in 1976 in a collection of her stories entitled Dream Children. Godwin herself is a feminist author, many of whose writings revolve around the problems experienced by women living in patriarchal societies. 

The story opens with the line:

Once upon a time there was a wife and mother one too many times.

This suggests two things, first that the story is a fable, intended to convey a universal meaning rather than just the story of an individual person, an impression strengthened by the way the woman is never actually named. According to the opening line, the central problem is that the woman (or everywoman) has been a wife and mother "too many times".

At the beginning of the story, the protagonist experiences a sort of revulsion at typical domestic interactions with her husband and child. The husband and child are generally portrayed sympathetically, so that the issue is not that she has married someone awful or that the child is horrible. 

The women tries retreating from her family, into reading and writing, but that does not solve the problem. When she returns to the conventional role of wife and mother by cooking, she dies. 

The main sense we get is that she does not have a medical or even psychological problem, but rather is trapped in a restrictive role that she is unable to escape. This is not a problem caused by her or unique to her, but rather the problem that patriarchal society restricts the choices of women. Even the joyful notes of her husband and child make her feel "unable to breathe" because they trap her in her role not by the bonds of oppression, against which she could rebel, but by the bonds of love. In a sense, it is not the woman who has the problem, but rather that patriarchal society is a problem for women.

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