Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Marie’s journey of healing focuses on her desire to abolish injustices experienced by women and by the poor. She comes to accept the necessary stance for her struggle: “I belong to those who do not die for the sake of beauty. I belong to those who die from other causes—exhausted by poverty, victims of wealth and power, fighters in a great cause.” Yet Marie’s commitment is not one that requires complete self-denial. Smedley recognizes that to undertake such a work as Marie’s, one must overcome psychological oppression as well. The same power structure which creates inhumane living conditions also thwarts the emotional needs of those subject to it. An unending round of labor which requires the repression of all needs except hunger reinforces the social control exercised by the economic system.

The system of sexual oppression is at the core of economic control and ultimately upholds it. Because a laborer’s value resides in earning capacity, and conventional marriage makes a woman’s earning ability that of her husband, she is valued only as a supplement to his potential. Once the forces of childbirth and motherhood begin to take effect in a woman’s life, she becomes an object of total submission under the guise of her husband’s “natural dominance,” regardless of whether his actual protection is also included therein. For Marie, the horror of the situation is bound up with sex and the guilt of participating in her own subjugation. Marie’s second marriage fails, and she is divided from her beloved work in the Indian movement, when an incident in her sexual past is used against her. These events dramatically illustrate that no movement of human struggle can succeed while men and women are divided by sexual politics which place them in unequal positions of power with disparate standards of behavior.

Marie’s bout with emotional illness and her sense of a loss of control bring her to a point of decision—to accept the pain of life as the price exacted in a struggle to better the quality of life. To recognize her status of victim, while no longer allowing herself to be victimized, is possible only when she is armed with the knowledge of experience.