Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1170
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 the male use of power and the female tendency to love and nurture, and how these issues shape or distort the lives of both men and women, particularly within Western cultures.
The book was a startling success, rising rapidly to the top of the best-seller lists and staying there. Critical reviews varied; the point that bothered most who found fault was that French gave men no equal time in her book. Not even the nicest of the men can help but hurt, cheat, or at least disappoint the women in the novel. This fallibility, however, seems to be French’s point, not only in this work but also in what has followed; the worship of power, the oppression of women, and the segregation of the sexes according to some preconceived status arrangement guarantees that men and women will be unable to communicate or share because, conceptually, they exist in different worlds.
Her second novel, The Bleeding Heart, was published in 1980. In it, instead of focusing on the lives of many women over their lifetimes, she follows the experiences of two characters, Dolores and Victor, through one year of their life in which an illicit relationship teaches both of them about themselves and the society they live in. Again the focus is on how men and women, even those with the best intentions, fail one another. French followed her controversial novels with Shakespeare’s Division of Experience, published in 1981, a study of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare from the perspective of what French terms “gender criticism,” exploring the depiction of issues related to sex and power in characterization and plot development in the plays to offer a general theory of male/female relationships in Western culture.
In 1985 Beyond Power was published, a massive work in which French articulated her theories of the problems of power and patriarchy, exploring them in the context of human development from prehistory to the present. The dichotomies which she had been exploring in her earlier works are here laid out clearly: Women represent birth, life, community, and nurturance; men stand for power, competition, control, and death. Although French presents an overwhelming body of information, the impact of the book, like that of The Women’s Room, is undercut by the binary oppositions presented and the repetition of stresses and points. Reviews were mixed, but most agreed that although the problems French explored are real ones, she may have overstated her case. She also offered no practical solutions to the painful dilemmas humans face today.
In 1987 Her Mother’s Daughter appeared. In this novel French investigates the relationships among four generations of women, the influences, both good and bad, of mother on daughter. Interesting in intent, the characterizations are not as fully realized as in her two earlier novels, and the reader’s sympathies are strained by the plaints of the later generations, who seem to have it so good but feel so bad.
The War Against Women traces negative attitudes toward women through history, establishing that misogyny is a systematic and universal phenomenon inherent in Western culture and values. French’s novel Our Father tells the story of four daughters of a tyrannical and abusive father who holds great economic and political power. When the sisters spend some weeks with each other during their father’s final illness, they bond. The novel restates French’s theme of illegitimate male power but also dramatizes women’s escape through mutual love and trust. My Summer with George continues the theme of the unreliability of men through the friendship, but never the desired affair, between Elsa Schutz, a sixty-something novelist, and fiftyish editor George Johnson. French uses Elsa’s unrequited feelings and her memories of her four husbands as the catalyst for numerous discussions among characters about their own romantic experiences. These novels continue French’s intelligent and thoughtful exploration of the situation of women in patriarchal society. It is this aspect of her fiction that has earned for her a solid place in contemporary American literature.
French’s final work included the four volume From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women (2002-2008) and the novel In the Name of Friendship in 2006. French died on May 2, 2009 at a hospital in New York .