Marilyn French Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Marilyn French became famous with the publication of her novel The Women’s Room in 1977. At that time, few who celebrated or attacked her in reviews realized that she was also a respected academician who had published a book of criticism the previous year that had been praised in scholarly journals. French has since become one of the United States’ most noted creators of both fictional and critical works. French was born November 21, 1929, in New York City, to E. Charles and Isabel (Hazz) Edwards. Her family was of Polish descent and had little money, facts which have played a part in her novels. Intelligent and determined, however, French excelled in school and received a scholarship to Hofstra University, then called Hofstra College. While in college, she married a lawyer, Robert M. French, Jr., on June 4, 1950, with whom she had two children. She received her B.A. from Hofstra College in 1951.

In 1956 French read Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book The Second Sex, which discusses the positioning of woman as “the other” or object in a world determined by and controlled by men. The book greatly impressed and influenced her, especially the sections on women writers who kept postponing doing their literary work. It was soon after reading de Beauvoir’s work that she began to write short stories herself, expressing her own feelings and frustrations. Unhappy in her marriage, she was divorced from her husband in 1957. With little money and two children to rear, but full of determination, French returned to school, receiving her master’s degree from Hofstra in 1964. She worked as an instructor of English there from 1964 to 1968 and then went on to Harvard University, from which she received her doctorate in English in 1972. She then became an assistant professor of English at Harvard University.

Before French was to write the novel which would make her famous, she published her first work of literary criticism, The Book as World, with Harvard University Press in 1976. A careful reading and analysis of the text of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), the book was praised by most reviewers and recommended for college and university libraries. In 1976 French became a Mellon Fellow in English and began The Women’s Room. In this book the reader follows the fates of a number of women who are drawn together when they meet as graduate students at Harvard University. The narrator, unidentified until the end, relates not only her own experiences but also those of the other characters as she hears their histories and watches their development. All the women have painful, at times devastating and destructive, encounters with the men in the novel. In fact, French was exploring in this work of fiction the theme which has since dominated both her critical works and the novels to follow: the relationship between...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Marilyn French lived through the women’s movement as it was happening and is one of the premier chroniclers of its evolution. As a writer of fiction and nonfiction works about women’s place in society, she uses invention and research to describe women’s thoughts and reactions to their situations and to trace the societal causes that lead to these reactions.

French began publishing relatively late in life, although she began writing at the age of ten. French grew up in Long Island, New York. A precocious child, she read works by the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer in her early teens. In 1950, she married shortly before receiving her B.A. degree. She gave up intellectual pursuits to cope with the time-consuming tasks of working to put her husband through law school, taking care of the house, and having children.

The next years were spent as a suburban housewife, listening to the stories of the other suburban housewives, and writing stories that were never published and that her husband criticized. In the early 1960’s, she returned to university to earn an M.A., then taught English. In 1967, she was divorced and went to Harvard to earn a Ph.D. Her thesis on James Joyce launched her into the field of literary criticism. This experience in writing nonfiction began her later alternation between fiction and nonfiction. She wrote nonfiction on William Shakespeare’s view of women, on the history of women in patriarchal culture, and on the evils done to women throughout history in the name of cultural institutions. While the tone toward men in these works may be considered vindictive, and the conclusions she draws are open to argument, her scholarship was extensive and the works impressive in scope and concept.

French’s more well-known contributions to feminist literature, however, were her works of fiction. She focused on the themes of the relationships between mothers and daughters, how motherhood affects a woman’s life, and how men are perceived by women as impediments to be stepped around. Although her writing style is often criticized for lack of plot, for its two-dimensional male figures, and for its relentlessly bleak outlook on relations between the sexes, the stories of the female characters offer an insight and clarity of experience with which many women identify.

French died at a hospital in New York on May 2, 2009.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alkaly-Gut, Karen. “The Stirring Conversation: American Literature and The Bleeding Heart.” Atlantis 9 (Fall, 1983). Deals with French’s treatment of conversation as a way to transcend sex roles.

Brown, Ellen. “Between the Medusa and the Abyss: Reading Jane Eyre, Reading Myself.” In The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, edited by Diane P. Freedman et al. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Explores the autobiographical connections in French’s work.

Homans, Margaret. “‘Her Very Own Howl’: The Ambiguities of Representation in Recent Women’s Fiction.” Signs 9 (Winter, 1983). Explores French’s relationship to language in the context of other female novelists.

Rubenstein, Roberta. “Feminism, Eros, and the Coming of Age.” Frontiers 22, no. 2 (2001). Compares French’s My Summer with George and Doris Lessing’s Love, Again (1996) for their representations of love and sexuality among aging women.

Sullivan, Mary Rose. “Breaking the Silence: Marilyn French’s Her Mother’s Daughter.” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Discusses French’s analysis of the enormous difficulties of motherhood.

Wagner, Linda W. “The French Definition.” Arizona Quarterly 38 (Winter, 1982). Discusses how French’s fiction defines contemporary ideas of love, happiness, power, guilt, and sorrow.

Wilson, Anna. Persuasive Fictions: Feminist Narrative and Critical Myth. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001. Wilson discusses The Women’s Room as an example of “the fiction of consciousness” in this set of essays on feminist writing from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.