Introduction

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Gould, Lois 1938(?)–

Gould is an American novelist, journalist, and former magazine editor. Her protagonists are contemporary women facing the complex problems of freedom in a society of shifting mores and values. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Annie Gottlieb

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["A Sea-Change,"] a weird, "Persona"-esque fable about power and sexual identity, is what will be called controversial. Freudian analysts, if there are any left, will call it penis envy. Feminists (and lesbians) will call it reactionary. It will also be called racist, and maybe even sick. Apart from all that, does it work on its own terms? Is it a good book?…

There is considerable suspense in "A Sea-Change," but surely not in the sense the author intended. One reads on not to see what Gould is going to do, but whether she will be able to figure out what she wants to do. In this murky psychological fable, swirling and swelling with inchoate forces, the writer seems as uncertain of what will emerge as the reader. And so bewildering is the product that this reader still feels uncertain what Gould intended, to what extent she is identified with her bizarre solution, to what extent distanced and in control.

At a crucial threshold in the development of women's writing and women's awareness—a threshold no one knows quite how to cross—Gould, like many others, seems to be feeling her way, blind and thoughtful, trying to think with the body. Fine. But what apparently happens is that she gropes up against a barrier—made of ambivalence, of fear of the unknown?—and turns back in the guise of going forward. A book which could have been about the dawning of female power, whatever that is, is instead about the capture and magical appropriation of male power, which is defined as the only kind of power there is. It's a frightening, yet oddly cozy, crawl back and deeper into the sadist//masochist trap Gould delineated so well in "Such Good Friends" (and more blatantly and less well in "Final Analysis"), a burrowing for the very roots of it. And yet, far from being a questioning, an exploration of that trap, it winds up feeling like a strange embrace and acceptance of it. Gould finally seems unable to see the world in any other but power terms….

What is astonishing here is that vulnerability and masochism are consistently associated not only with the female role, but with the female anatomy…. Conversely, the symbol of power and invulnerability is not even the phallus—that's too human…. [But] that perfected phallus, the gun….

Power grapples, deep and bloody, into submission. And power is male and submission is female. I've tried letting Gould off the hook by saying maybe this is meant to be an ambivalent study of psychopathology, of the psychic inextricability of the sexes—a way of saying we are as possessed by the cultural image of the male as gay males are by the exaggerated female. But it just doesn't wash. Irony and distance are missing; Gould seems to take her dichotomy seriously and to confuse the cultural cliché with the underlying and unknown nature. (p. 33)

One can't tell a writer what to write, or prescribe ideological guidelines…. It's the inner inconsistency of "A Sea-Change," its midcourse shift of direction, that disturbs me, with its implication that the end product of women's most turbulent transformations is—a man! After reading "Such Good Friends" and "Final Analysis," I wondered where Gould would take the pent-up rage and witty desperation of her believably masochistic heroines…. In "Final Analysis," though it's not a very good book, hopeful flashes emerge: the...

(This entire section contains 656 words.)

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brief clear taste of self experienced in a women's group, or alone as a writer. Here Gould's heroines enter a brief and giddy free zone, only to plunge, midway through "A Sea-Change," back into "identification with the oppressor." After Gould's female tempest, as before, anatomy is more or less destiny, and power grows out of the barrel of a gun. (p. 34)

Annie Gottlieb, "Female Power: It's Male, Black, and Shoots," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), August 30, 1976, pp. 33-4.

Anne Tyler

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In Lois Gould's third novel, "Final Analysis," the almost ludicrously masochistic heroine eventually straightened herself out by withdrawing alone to a deserted beach cottage to write a book. It was a curiously sudden sort of resolution—perfunctory, vague, as if the author herself were not entirely convinced of its feasibility.

Now in "A Sea-Change," Lois Gould's fourth novel, we find another woman withdrawing to another beach cottage—maybe hoping to get it right this time…. [We're] back with the heroines of "Final Analysis" and "Such Good Friends"—women who feel a sense of disgust for themselves and who are drawn to men who share that disgust. (p. 4)

The purpose of Jessie's withdrawal is to accomplish a transformation—from victim to aggressor, from soft and yielding to hard and controlling. She grows flat-chested, angular; she wears a tool belt slung low on her hips that gives her an athletic stride. In her dealings with Kate, who becomes her lover, she adopts a brutal, condescending tone while Kate turns whining and supplicating. It's the ultimate metamorphosis: woman to man. Except that we're going by a stunted definition of woman here, and an even more stunted definition of man….

[As] a story, "A Sea-Change" will while away an evening nicely. (Though it's not meant for the squeamish.) It's crisply written, hard-edged, and it demonstrates Lois Gould's special skill in selecting the solitary detail that speaks volumes. But there are broad hints throughout that this is less a story than a statement—a generalization on the very nature of male and female. Generalizations of any kind tend to arouse a reader's suspicions; generalizations of this kind (men are brutal, and women love it) arouse out-and-out irritation. It's a plot best left in the singular case: ignore the polemics, read it as a bizarre fantasy about one mild woman transformed by rage, and let it go at that. (p. 5)

Anne Tyler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1976.

Ella Leffland

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If this novel had been written ten years ago, I doubt that it would have been published. Bad writing in itself never kept a book from print if its subject was hot, but what audience in prelib days would have been thought ready for an oppressed woman who at the climax of a hurricane turns into the gunman she was raped by? Supernatural sex change could be entertaining (Orlando, Turnabout), but what would one make of the subject drenched in mythology and awash with symbols, a dark churning vehicle for the sufferings of Woman in a male-dominated world?…

Once an idea's time arrives, the novels rush forth in droves to meet the demand. Some meet it creatively; too many, like A Sea-Change, can only bore their readers and litter the milieu with paste figures and message-scrawled placards. (p. 92)

Jessie is supposed to typify the submissive woman of yesterday—"She was, after all, not a new woman, but an 'old' woman in a new time"—while yet possessing enough spark to show potential. This might have been achieved if the author had made the effort, but her method of creating characters is to tack on statements about them as she goes along, as if posting announcements on a bulletin board. A quarter of the way through the book, for instance, we're puzzled to read that Jessie is "a strange and wonderful creature, full of discomforting insights and improbable passions," since we've seen no hint of this creature on previous pages. Nor is it possible to reconcile the statement that Jessie is too lax and timid to order for herself at a restaurant or to learn to drive, with the statement that she walked out on a lover of long standing one night, without a suitcase, to marry someone else. Lois Gould is much less interested in fusing the disparities of her heroine than in getting on with her sea-change. With no emotional fullness at its disposal, the change takes place in a vacuum.

The change is one from helplessness to control, with a long convoluted way to go before Jessie emerges as B.G. (black gunman)…. [We] wonder in retrospect why Jessie couldn't have gone from point A to point B.G. without all the goddesses and natural phenomena in between. But then what would the author have done for symbols?

These are so abundant and explicit that they deal the death-blow to any hope of verisimilitude the story might have possessed…. [Virtually every name in the novel is symbolically significant—we] have been given carte blanche to play word games in the margin.

Diane [Jessie's daughter] and her younger sister are the prime source of symbols, engrossed in a collection of foreign dolls from which they have ousted all male representatives…. (pp. 92-4)

All the author's concern seems to have gone into this allegorical network, leaving nothing for the writing itself…. [Gould's stylistic] clumsiness bespeaks an indifferent attitude to readers who might conceivably expect more than a scribbled first draft. The tone, as well, has a slipshod quality. Dealing with earthbound matters in her first chapter, the author speaks unjarringly in what is probably her natural writing tone, one of brittle irony; but faced by a sea-change rich and strange, her voice slubbers around, becoming in turn lugubrious, indignant, and pedantic. We have no sense of a writer seized by an idea and wrestling with it to the best of her ability; rather, the writer seems to have looked for a surefire project and pulled out occult feminism. Good, a bag of symbols, sex thrown everywhere, and a hurricane for excitement. The tone can be figured out along the way—and, if possible, the meaning.

If Ms. Gould has figured out the meaning of her mishmash, I haven't. Control is clearly the book's pivotal idea, and there clarity ends. I know that a great deal more has been thrown into the pot than the concept of exploitee-turning-exploiter, but that is the most I can make out. As an idea, it is a good one, psychologically valid…. There is perhaps nothing so terrifying and tragic as the passion for safety that compels the oppressed to become oppressors, and, handled without abracadabra, Jessie Waterman might have had some literary value as one of these—a woman who abruptly sees her entire past as a gang rape, and becomes, herself, a psychological rapist. A more literal change than that should be attempted only by a writer with the sensibilities of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Presented as it is, A Sea-Change comes across vulgar, meretricious, and pointless. Whatever its inflated symbols may be up to, it never rises above the level of this characteristic scene: her house about to collapse on her, her daughter swept out to sea and presumably dead, Jessie finds the time and inclination for sexual experimentation with Surfman Leo on the floor. (p. 94)

Ella Leffland, "Heavy Weather," in Harper's (copyright © 1976 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the October, 1976 issue by special permission), October, 1976, pp. 92-4.

Judith Viorst

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At the end of this witty and intelligent collection of essays ["Not Responsible for Personal Articles"] Lois Gould wonders what has happened to what she terms "the old ethical feminism." "We used to come together from very different places," she writes, "and we came not to judge, destroy, appease or lie to each other, but to find the connective tissues, without ever disowning our differences. Therein used to lie our strength."

Whether or not that strength has been lost to the women's movement … there is plenty of connective tissue in this book, which takes a feminist look at the meaning and morality of everything from ERA to Bloomingdale's. And, while readers may find themselves—as I did—differing strongly with Lois Gould on this or that point, I imagine that they will also find themselves—as I did—more interested in the connections than in the divisions….

But if I am moved to argument, surely that's part of what makes this book worthwhile. For by challenging readers to think through old positions and consider new ones, it encourages us to distinguish reason from rote. And by offering us an essentially quite sane and humane point of view, it offers the hope that even after the lines of division are drawn, we still can find ourselves on the same side.

Judith Viorst, "How Costly Is a Held Door?" in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1978, p. 13.

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Gould, Lois (Vol. 4)