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...
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