Introduction

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Best known for her first novel, the highly popular The Women's Room (1977), French is an author of controversial works that provoke both enthusiastic and antagonistic responses from critical audiences. A former homemaker whose academic aspirations led her to Harvard University during the politically turbulent 1960s, French draws upon her experiences with motherhood, divorce, academia, and political activism to evoke the concerns of women who rebel against domesticity, sexual submission, and discrimination in the workplace. While some critics denounce French's ideological fiction and nonfiction as polemical, her works are widely read and often examined in women's studies courses.

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BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

French was born November 21, 1929, in New York City, to a poor family of Polish descent. She received a bachelor's degree from Hofstra College (now Hofstra University) in Long Island in 1951. French married Robert M. French Jr., with whom she has two children. French returned to Hofstra to earn her master's degree in 1964, while also teaching English at the college from 1964 to 1968. In 1967 French divorced her husband and enrolled in the English graduate program at Harvard University, receiving her Ph.D. in 1972. French used her personal experiences as the basis for the central character of Mira in The Women's Room; Mira also divorced her husband and enrolled at Harvard in the same year.

From 1972 to 1976 French taught English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She also served as the Mellon fellow in English at Harvard from 1976 to 1977 and as artist in residence at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Study in 1972. Aside from her novels and nonfiction works, French has contributed essays and articles to such journals as Soundings and Ohio Review, often under the pseudonym Mara Solwoska. In 1992 French was diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer. She recovered from the illness and the experience later became the basis for A Season in Hell: A Memoir (1998).

MAJOR WORKS

One year after French published her first work—The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses" (1976), a critical reexamination of Joyce's novel—she published The Women's Room, which is generally considered one of the most influential novels of the modern feminist movement. The novel follows the evolution of Mira, a repressed and submissive woman, who is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. Mira eventually divorces her neglectful husband, returns to college, and joins a group of feminist activists. Ranging from the stultifying suburban milieu of the 1950s to the male-dominated counter-culture of the 1960s, The Women's Room depicts sexism in America as a pervasive and pernicious social force that acts to advance the oppression and exploitation of women. Through the various female characters in Mira's group, French illustrates the psychological and physical abuses frequently inflicted on women and recreates the consciousness-raising dialogues of the era that inspired many women to take up political activism. Extending French's discussion of moderate feminism is a more radical orientation represented by Val, an eloquent member of the group who becomes militant after her daughter is sexually assaulted. When the rape trial becomes more of an indictment of the young woman than of the rapist, Val joins a women's separatist colony that advocates the violent overthrow of patriarchal American society.

French continued her commentary on gender relations in her second novel, The Bleeding Heart (1980), a chronicle of a love affair between Dolores, a divorced feminist writer seeking an egalitarian relationship, and Victor, a married executive with traditional values. To cultivate a healthy relationship, each confronts past tragedies and failures in their marriages and parenthood, and Dolores persuades Victor to reassess his assumptions about gender roles.

French examines the origins of societal male dominance in Shakespeare's Division of Experience (1981), a collection of broadly theoretical essays. The work asserts that the woman's capacity to bear children has historically aligned her with nature and, consequently, has left her vulnerable to man's compulsion to exercise power over nature.

French again combines her interest in political doctrine and scholarly pursuits in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (1985), which reinterprets world history through a feminist perspective. Often compared to the metahistorical essays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel Foucault, Beyond Power surveys such diverse disciplines as anthropology, medicine, political science, philosophy, astronomy, zoology, and law in its argument against patriarchal domination. According to French, early egalitarian, mother-centered societies were overthrown by a conspiracy of men obsessed with a desire for control over women and nature. With the pursuit of power as its impetus, patriarchal culture enslaved women and devised social structures emphasizing male-centered religion, property rights, and the division of labor. As a result, French argues, women have suffered in every human society from ancient Greece to modern China.

In Her Mother's Daughter (1987), French examines emotional and familial bonds among four generations of American women, beginning in the early 1900s. Frances, a widowed Polish immigrant who is forced by poverty to send three of her four children to orphanages, consigns her bitterness to her only remaining child, Isabelle. In turn, Isabelle's overprotective nurturing prompts her rebellious daughter to achieve success in a competitive male world, while ultimately neglecting her own children. French invests her narrative with myriad domestic details to demonstrate the sobering effects of unwanted pregnancies, abusive husbands, and tedious household responsibilities.

French's The War against Women (1992) surveys the oppression of women on a global scale. Considering such activities as ritualized female genital mutilation in Africa and the burning of brides in India, along with economic disparities between women and men, French argues that women have become disempowered and overwhelmed by patriarchal societies.

French's novel Our Father (1994) depicts a troubled family reunion that occurs after a wealthy man, Stephen Upton, suffers a stroke, inspiring a visit from his four estranged daughters—all of whom have different mothers. Each hoping to gain either money or acknowledgment from her father, the women initially compete and argue among themselves. The daughters' discovery that they have all been the victims of incest during their childhood, however, becomes a source of bonding and mutual support.

My Summer with George (1996) follows Hermione Beldame, a successful, sixty-year-old romance novelist, who meets a handsome newspaper editor named George Johnson one summer at Columbia University. Hermione spends the next few months creating a romanticized vision of her relationship and future with George, only to become disappointed after she realizes that George is not the man she imagined him to be.

A Season in Hell: A Memoir recounts French's personal battle with and eventual triumph over metastasized esophageal cancer. French discusses her various medical treatments and the resulting effects of her aggressive chemotherapy, including brittle bones, kidney problems, and diabetes. The work focuses on the experience of being a patient, with French asserting that many doctors, regardless of gender, are insensitive and aloof to the pain experienced by the people under their care.

In 2002 French released the first volume of the three-volume series From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women. Bringing together scholarly and academic information, the series offers a careful critical examination of issues pertaining to the history of women throughout the world since the dawn of time. The first volume, Origins (2002), examines the roles of women from the advent of recorded history to the Middle Ages. The second volume, The Masculine Mystique (2002), follows women's history from the feudal era to the French Revolution. The final volume, Paradises and Infernos (2003), covers the nineteenth century to the modern era.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Critical assessment of French's oeuvre has been sharply divided, inspiring numerous debates over the validity of her fiction and nonfiction. Although many feminist critics have praised French as a groundbreaking pioneer in the field of women's studies, other critics have charged that French's works are belligerent, artless, and ideologically clumsy. Detractors of The Women's Room have criticized French for her sympathetic portrayal of the violently militant Val and have argued that the novel is virulently anti-male and grim. However, several scholars have noted that the novel's immense popularity confirms its integrity, and they have continued to regard the novel as one of the most important works in the feminist canon. Many reviewers have praised French's candid illustrations of mid-life anxiety and her examination of sexual stereotypes in The Bleeding Heart, though some have argued that the novel is overly rhetorical and unconvincing. Critical reaction to the essays in Beyond Power has been diverse and emphatic, with a number of commentators faulting French's arguments as fallacious and inane, while others have defended the collection as innovative and erudite. Despite some assertions that her work holds a militant and uncompromising bias, French has remained a major figure in modern feminist studies.

Principal Works

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The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses" (criticism) 1976

The Women's Room (novel) 1977

The Bleeding Heart (novel) 1980

Shakespeare's Division of Experience (essays and criticism) 1981

Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (essays and criticism) 1985

Her Mother's Daughter (novel) 1987

The War against Women (nonfiction) 1992

Our Father (novel) 1994

My Summer with George (novel) 1996

A Season in Hell: A Memoir (memoir) 1998

From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume I: Origins (history and criticism) 2002

From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume II: The Masculine Mystique (history and criticism) 2002

From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume III: Paradises and Infernos (history and criticism) 2003

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: French, Marilyn. “Is There a Feminist Aesthetic?” In Aesthetics in Feminist Perspective, edited by Hilde Hein and Carolyn Korsmeyer, pp. 68-76. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.

In the following essay, originally published in 1990, French discusses defining “feminist” works of art and the characteristics she feels necessary to judge a piece of literature as feminist.

Literary art that is identifiably feminist approaches reality from a feminist perspective and endorses female experience. A feminist perspective demystifies patriarchal assumptions about the nature of human beings, their relation to nature, and the relation of physical and moral qualities to each other. To endorse female experience, the artist must defy or stretch traditional literary conventions, which often means offending or alienating readers. Traditional literary conventions are rooted in philosophical assumptions several thousand years old and still widely current. A third principle of feminist art—which not all feminists subscribe to—is accessibility. When feminist art is difficult, the reason usually lies not in purposeful obfuscation, but in the poverty of our language of feeling, and the difficulty of rendering feeling.

It is questionable whether the terms and issues of traditional aesthetics are applicable to feminist art. Some critics claim traditional aesthetic principles are universal, and that art is “above” sex, or at least, that sex is irrelevant to it. There is an art which is specifically feminist: that much is clear. Some, by virtue of its feminism, would deny it the title art, arguing that its political interest violates aesthetic standards. An aesthetics like Susanne Langer’s, which defines what art creates and is indeed universal, fits feminist art as well as any other (Langer 1953). But most aesthetics are more prescriptive, and therefore more political: feminism has taught us that all critical approaches imply political standards, however tacitly. Before we can evaluate feminist art by any aesthetic principles, we need a definition of the art. In what follows, I will discuss the characteristics of feminist art as I understand them. For the sake of brevity, I will limit myself to the art I know best, literature; but the principles have parallels in the other arts.

The clearest proof of the existence of a feminist aesthetics is the distaste or rage feminists feel on encountering works that violate it. Sometimes a negative response seems to refer to subject matter—for example, I loathe lingering loving descriptions of mutilations of female bodies; yet when a writer like Andrea Dworkin treats such a theme, I feel it to be not offensive, but only unpleasant—it falls within the boundaries of “taste.” So it is less subject-matter (content) than treatment (style) that is at issue (I will not here address the identity of style and content). Perhaps all a prescriptive aesthetic can be is a set of principles describing a particular style, a taste.

There are two fundamental, related principles that mark a work of art as feminist: first, it approaches reality from a feminist perspective; second, it endorses female experience. Each principle has several ramifications, so is more complicated than it sounds.

In a work with a feminist perspective, the narrational point of view, the point of view lying behind the characters and events, penetrates, demystifies, or challenges patriarchal ideologies. So much has been written about patriarchy in the last two decades that one tends to assume readers understand the term; yet I have met highly educated people who do not understand the feminist use of the term, so I’ll explain it briefly. Patriarchy is a way of thinking, a set of assumptions that has been translated into various structures or ideologies. The assumptions are, first: males are superior to females. Their superiority may be granted by a deity or by nature, but it is absolute in conferring on men authority over women. Second: males have individual destinies; they are promised domination, a surrogate godhead, transcendence over the natural world through power in heroism, sainthood, or some form of transcendent paternity—founding a dynasty, an institution, a religion, or a state, or creating an enduring work of art or technology. Third: the form taken by patriarchy is hierarchy, a structure designed to maintain and transmit power from spiritual father to spiritual son. This form absolutely excludes females unless they “make themselves male” (the requirement Jesus places on women entering “the Life” in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas) (1977). Women control biological transmission, the ability to bring forth young passed from mother to daughter. Having this power, they must be excluded from institutional power—which was modeled on the biological sort—if they are not to overwhelm men. Females have only a “natural” destiny; interchangeable parts of nature’s cycles, they are maids (in both senses), who become mothers, and finally widows (or hags), in which avatar they are expendable.

Finally, domination is divine, so to pursue it is noble, heroic, glorious. The material to be dominated is, essentially, nature—all women; the body and emotions; “bestial” men; and natural processes, the flux and transitoriness of time, material decay, life itself. Patriarchal works focus on individual males who pursue glory; lonely, self-made and self-defeating, men are isolated from community and exiled forever from the “female” fate of happiness.

Since almost all modern worlds are patriarchal, feminist literature necessarily depicts patriarchy. But it does not underwrite its standards. Feminist literature may show patriarchal attitudes destroying a character or a world, but the narrative does not approve the destruction. When, in The Faerie Queene, Guyon destroys the luscious female world called The Bower of Bliss, Spenser, who has used his highest imaginative skills to create the Bower, judiciously approves its ruin. This is true also of Vergil in The Aeneid. The poet sighs about the tears of things (lacrimae rerum), regretting that beauty and feeling (Dido and sexual love for instance) are destroyed in the pursuit of glory, yet approves Aeneas’s desertion of Dido, and his slaughter of those who oppose his domination. Aeneas’s destiny is to found Rome; it overrides humanitarian or emotional concerns. Clearly, despite their feelings, both poets uphold patriarchy.

It is less clear where Tolstoy stands in Anna Karenina, or Austen in Pride and Prejudice. Both authors accept the patriarchal societies in which they live. Yet the pity Tolstoy lavishes on Anna, and the acute irony with which Austen pricks upper-class pretention and the unctuous ambition of the middle-classes, subvert patriarchal standards. This sympathy is not in the eye of the reader; it is built-in. Tolstoy’s novel induces readers to feel the world lessened by Anna’s death, rather than to feel that it was necessary, like Dido’s, to a greater purpose. Austen’s heroines maintain self-respect and integrity (wholeness) even as they triumph within a patriarchal structure. Many works of the past three centuries stretch patriarchal standards in this way; they are not feminist, but do not wholly support patriarchy either.

The feminist perspective is partly a reversal of patriarchal views. Feminism sees women as at least equal to men, humanly if not politically or economically; it considers transcendence illusory or factitious and pursuit of power a fatally doomed enterprise, since it cannot ever be satisfied, and usually or always involves the destruction of vital qualities and even life itself. Domination is not divine but lethal to dominator and dominated. It harms the dominator by cutting him off from trust and mutuality, the foundations of friendship and love, the two primary values; it harms the dominated by forcing them into dependency, which precludes truth in relationships. Domination creates false forms of friendship (society) and love (conventional marriage) which mask power relations. And feminist art focuses on people as wholes; the human is made up of body and emotion as well as mind and spirit; she is also part of a community, connected to others; and—on the broadest level—to nature in both positive and negative aspects.

The second principle is equally complicated. To endorse women’s experience, feminist art must present it honestly, wholly. This is difficult because literature, like all art, is made up of conventions which are particularly marked in the area of gender. Just as it would be startling to observe a painting of a male nude reclining seductively à la Maja, or Olympe, or of a clothed female Picasso contemplating a naked male with emphatic genitals, literary shifts in presentation of gender startle, distracting attention from what is being shown to the fact that it is shown. A work’s political impact obliterates its other features. This means that either considerable time—decades or even centuries—must elapse before readers can concentrate on what is being shown, or the work will be forgotten without this ever happening. And conventions governing female characters in literature are extraordinarily powerful and tenacious.

One convention holds women’s work trivial, insignificant, uninteresting. Indeed, even men’s work was considered an inappropriate subject for literature until recently. Yet work fills our lives; domestic work is most women’s entire life and takes up considerable time even for women who also work outside the home. What such work means to one’s sense of self, of the larger world; how it affects a woman’s relation to her children, mates, lovers, friends; its pleasures, pains, the personal and political consequences of endless work for which one is not paid: these experiences remain relatively unexplored because of convention.

Conventionally, women’s stories had happy endings, usually marriage to a prince and living happily ever after—unless the heroine is guilty of a sexual transgression, in which case she is required to die. This convention has stretched to allow sexual women to survive, but readers still complain when a “good” woman does not live happily ever after. The assumption behind this convention seems to be that the world is ruled by a male bar of justice. All female characters come up before this bar, and males, being just, grant the good ones happiness—a female, not a male condition (male heroes almost never live happily ever after). If the author does not grant a virtuous female character eternal felicity, either she doesn’t deserve it or the male bar is not just. Since in a patriarchal world the latter is unthinkable, her virtue must be deceptive. So male critics pore over Shakespeare’s Cordelia searching for the hidden flaw that explains her fate and alter Edith Wharton’s perception of her heroines (who are flawed), making them responsible for their own unhappiness.

If the definition of a “good” woman no longer involves chastity, heroines are still required to be sweet, vulnerable, likeable. Readers do not expect sweetness or honesty of male protagonists: they don’t even have to be likeable: consider the heroes of Under the Volcano, Notes from Underground, Look Back in Anger. Authoritative, angry, rebellious heroines make most readers impatient; they tend to blame the character for not finding a way to be happy. I think about Andrea Dworkin’s Ice and Fire, which could not at first find an American publisher, or my own The Bleeding Heart, which female and male reviewers (if not readers) uniformly condemned. Actual women, we ourselves, may walk around in a constant state of rage and yet reject heroines like us. The most lethal combination is authority and sexuality; it is almost impossible to depict a woman with both except as a villain.

I am very conscious of this because I am planning a novel with an authoritative, sexual woman character, who lives in rage and despair, and who may not be likeable—but who has real grounds for her feelings, and lives in pain, and is in some ways admirable. Someone like, say, Ivan Karamazov. I already know how she will be received, and I dread it. There should be room for every kind of female experience, even the inability to live happily ever after. There should be room for depictions of women who are monstrous. Again, difficulties occur in distinguishing portrayals of monstrous women from portraits drawn by woman-haters. Woman-hating nestles deep at the root of patriarchy; all of us, women and men, are probably infected by it to some degree. Women’s own woman-hatred needs exploration in feminist art.

In portraying female experience, feminist art also portrays men, showing them as they impinge upon women or as they appear to women to be. There are no heroes who save women: not because men would not like to do this, but because it can’t be done. This is not to say there is no heroism, male and female, in life; only that there are no princes. What men are in themselves or for other men may contradict what they are for women; women’s dreams and hopes about men may be mere wishfulness; women may be complicit in male monstrousness. Feminist portraits of males must examine these realities, but there are serious dangers in doing so. Although women (and even men) offer blanket condemnation of male treatment of females in conversation, such condemnation on a printed page is tantamount to mutiny (so wives’ disobedience of husbands, in Shake-speare’s era, was called “revolution”) and leads to the work being dismissed.

These principles may sound limiting, as if feminist work could deal only and always with the middle ground, the mundane, the probable, eschewing flights of fancy, excessive characters, extremes of good and evil. This is not at all the case, although precisely that middle ground needs examination. Consider that for the 2,500-plus years of its existence, Western philosophy has looked at life strictly from a male perspective, and strictly as if men were constituted only of intellect, ambition, and political concern; as if they never had to deal with upset stomachs, irritation at their children, emotional dependency, hunger, or distress at growing bald. As Nietzsche pointed out, philosophy has ignored and dismissed the life of the body and the emotions, and—I would add—social involvement with women and children. It has been able to show men transcending only by pretending that the mundane does not exist and that other people do not matter.

In addition, for millennia, at least since fifth century BCE Athens, male thinking has divided human experience into two unequal categories. These may be mind/body, reason/sense, spirit/ flesh (sexual desire), or intellect/emotion, but the two are always opposed like enemies, and one is always ascribed moral superiority—in the righteous man, mind (or reason, spirit, intellect) will triumph. By dividing experience this way, men have been able to build a world they claim is based on mind, reason, spirit, intellect, a culture which controls and belittles body, senses, desire, emotion; and have felt legitimate in using ruthless means to suppress people associated with what is disparaged. Valuing only certain talents and ignoring or denigrating others, certain men have created a science-based industrial-technological environment without giving a single moment of thought to its effect on living, feeling, and desire; and have disparaged, debased, and killed women of all sorts and men of discredited colors, religions, cultures, or backgrounds.

It is essential for the healing of a sick world that this division be mended. To begin with, it is false. Humans are of a piece, made up of thousands of intricate interconnections, mind body spirit sex sense intellect being only points in an indescribable continuum. Bodymind swirls around in us, without us; we contain it, it contains us. We can try to understand the processes by which we function, but we cannot control them. Every step at control is counteracted by the power of what is hidden; too many steps and we fall ill, off-balance.

Not only is each of us a complex network whose working we barely understand, but each of us is connected to other people and ideas and things in equally complex ways. There is no such thing as a self-made man—or woman. Scientists are discovering more fully each decade that nothing dominates. No planet dominates the cosmos, no part of a cell dominates it, no single person, not even the boss, dominates any situation. The drive to control that informs patriarchy is an unremitting, relentless drive to an invulnerability, impregnability (consider the root of this word), that does not exist on earth. People spend their lives trying to reach a pinnacle of power from which they can affect others without being affected in return—one definition of god. But even a Stalin, who arguably controlled more, in terms of people and territory, than any other human in our century, lived within prison walls, with a taster to try his food, without the possibility of trust, without which both friendship and love are impossible. And bosses are afraid in direct proportion to the degree of control they possess—of those beneath them as well as those above. And are affected by them, in all kinds of ways. Power is a moment, a temporary station on a telephone line; tomorrow, the powerful man may be forced out even if he is president, chairman, Shah.

We have not yet created a language to describe interconnection: our language is based on fabricated dichotomies, and trying to speak about mind/body/senses all at once makes one feel she has a mouthful of marbles. But in whatever ways the genius of the artist can devise, feminist art suggests that things are connected as well as divided, that a person is not always at war with herself or her world, that in fact people seek to live harmoniously with themselves and their world even though they can’t control either. Feminist work often focuses on groups, community, people as part of a context, and helps to remind us of a reality alternative to the Western tradition of individualistic, alienated man, lonely in a hostile, aggressive world.

So, a third kind of endorsement of female experience is showing a pluralistic reality made up of connection, flow, interrelation, and therefore equality—for when nothing dominates, all parts are equally necessary, and require equal attention. In the workings of the human being or of cosmic space, the puffing up of one part with claims of superiority leads to catastrophe for all parts. Human superiority is not a possibility, no matter how many have claimed it. Shakespeare may endow his kings and lords with social and political superiority, but he also regularly shows their underlings—a simple clown, a powerless girl—to be superior to them in common sense, morality, and understanding.

Works of art that assume the existence of human superiority are invariably anti-woman. I have been paying attention now for many years: works that presume that some people are and ought to be “better” than others betray contempt for those others on grounds of their identity—in Western literature, usually blacks or Jews. And when you find the one, you find the other: where there is contempt for any identity, there is also contempt for femaleness or things associated with female-ness—body, sex, desire, need—even in works written by women. Although writers of the late twentieth-century United States are inhibited from expressing anti-Semitism or racism, many, especially television writers, allow themselves the complacency of moral superiority in their literary treatment of prostitutes, who are not shown as people but as attractive subhumans, unworthy of humane consideration.

A third feminist principle, to which I myself am committed, is accessibility, language and style that aim at comprehensibility. I mention this separately because unlike the two principles already discussed, it is not a necessary condition of feminist art. It is, however, a standard about which I feel strongly.

For thousands of years, women were locked out of high culture. For example, sometime between 200 BCE and 550 CE, Hindu women were forbidden to learn Sanskrit, the language in which all the great Hindu religious and literary documents were composed. The rationale for this was that women were not capable of moksha, salvation, and so did not need to read about religion. But the prohibition kept women from learning the religious, mythic, and poetic backgrounds of their culture.

In the fifth century, Japan imported Chinese culture, philosophy, and language; at this time, Japanese women were still powerful. In later centuries, they were degraded and diminished, and male authorities forbade them to learn Chinese, by then the prestige language of Japan, the language of philosophy, government, and “high” literature. Ironically, in the eleventh century, while learned men trotted out tedious pretentious Chinese imitations, literary women writing in the vernacular produced some of Japan’s greatest literature, including its masterpiece, the Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu.

Some societies refused to teach females how to read and write. But even if some women were literate, once a particular language became exalted, became the language of scholarship, poetry, diplomacy, or law, theology, and medicine, women were forbidden to learn it. When humanism swept Europe after the fourteenth century, and it became essential to cultivated discourse to know Latin and Greek, women were excluded from schools that taught Latin and Greek. As more lower-class men learned classical languages, a new literary form emerged: allegory, intended to separate the low from the high mind. The medieval allegorist prided himself on concealing spiritual meaning under a sensuous surface. Of course, this also permitted him to write splendid sensuous poetry, filled with sexual and chivalric exploits, while claiming to offer a more severe and exalted “kernel” of hidden significance to the truly learned. Often, poets were also offering serious moral instruction, usually about power, in this coded language.

In our own time, in our own country, our own language, English, is the prestige tongue, the one in which advanced scientific, social, philosophical, and technological documents are written. But these documents are rarely written in an English all of us can comprehend. Rather, each discipline has created a special language, a jargon accessible only to those who have been trained in the field. Women now learn these languages, and use them with it seems to me special pleasure, as if they knew they were using tools formerly sacrosanct, kept in the part of the temple forbidden to females. Some degree of specialist language is necessary; feminists who must use special languages can develop a critique of those languages, and acknowledge and renounce, even as they use them, the patriarchal assumptions implanted in their codes.

What I find non-feminist is intentional obfuscation, the kind of writing that purposes to impress the reader with the writer’s knowledge or intellect or high style or “inness,” the kind that makes a point of excluding all but the chosen few. With reservations, I love the work of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, writers who make frequent use of allusion, quoting fragments of poetry, namedropping, and otherwise referring to great poets and thinkers of the past. By this they accomplish several things: they add depth to their work, texturing, enriching it with allusions to a literary tradition. They also parade their learning, placing themselves above the perhaps less-learned reader, presenting themselves as distant and superior. And they legitimate themselves. Western poetry traditionally required citation of authority. By bringing in Homer, Cavalcante, Dante, Shakespeare, these men suggest that they are writing in the same tradition as the great men of the past; that they are the equals of these forebears; and that they deserve the same reverence.

Few women use such devices. In the first place, there are few female authorities and women do not seem to feel that males can legitimate them. Second, the device is itself patriarchal: patriarchy is about the transmission of power, the mantle handed from father to nonbiological son, a tradition excluding women. But most important, women seem to feel legitimated not by power and authority, as men do, but by experience itself. And experience is made up of feeling. Women seek legitimacy by finding ways to express what it feels like to live their particular reality. When women’s writing is opaque, or what some might call inaccessible, it is because there is no language of expression of a context of emotion: each woman has to create a language for herself. So, some might find inaccessible Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères or Susan Griffin’s The Roaring inside Her, or Luce Irigaray’s And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other, or Lois Gould’s A Sea-Change and Subject to Change, or Christa Wolf’s Cassandra or No Place on Earth: but whatever inaccessibility exists in these works emerges not from pretention but from the difficulty of rendering the life of the emotions.

My own style is based on my decision, made after almost twenty years of (unpublished) writing in a different mode, to address the reader like a friend talking across a kitchen table, over coffee: I see the reader as an equal, who will out of friendship try as hard to understand the narrator’s reality as she to express it. I believe that a healthy literature, one that attempts to create a healthy culture, is inclusive—of everyone—implicitly or explicitly. It is directed at an entire society, and considers everyone in it a member of that society. Choosing to write in such a style necessarily involves some loss and therefore some anguish. But any style requires sacrificing others.

Finally, there may be a distinction between patriarchal and feminist forms. In Feeling and Form, Susanne Langer describes the form of tragedy as expressing the rhythms of individual life as the hero realizes his potential and exhausts it, comparing it with comedy, the form of which celebrates vital continuity. In Shakespeare’s Division of Experience, I draw on Langer’s definitions to describe Shakespeare’s tragedy and comedy as masculine and feminine forms respectively: tragedy focuses on an individual male, is linear, and leads to a destiny which must be death but suggests transcendence; comedy focuses less intensely on a female, is circular, communal, and leads to harmony and integration of an entire society (although in Shakespeare, the most seriously disruptive element may be excluded from the happy conclusion) (French 1981). Twentieth-century literature, patriarchal or feminist, rarely fits the categories of either traditional tragedy or comedy; yet I think a study of form in any art would yield similar conclusions.

The art I describe in these principles is a different entity from the art described by traditional aesthetics. Itself transcendent, embodying universal aesthetic principles, singular and useless except to move the sensibility exquisite enough to apprehend it, art as traditionally seen is the delicate flower expressing the spirit of a culture. But for feminists, as Lily Tomlin’s baglady Trudy tries to work it out (in Jane Wagner’s words, with Andy Warhol’s image of cans of Campbell’s soup), art is soup (Wagner 1986, 29). Art nourishes a society, feeds it; sturdy, not delicate, it arises from the life of a people like food from the ground, teaching us what we do not know, reminding us of what we tend to forget, emphasizing what is important, grieving over pain, celebrating vitality. It is useful and beautiful and moral—not moralistic.

The standards I hold for a feminist art are thus, as you have probably guessed, my standards in life. And that is what I believe an art, any art, ought to be: an expression of a vision that is at once a belief and a faith—belief in humanity and faith in its future. I have always accepted the Horatian definition of the purpose of art—to teach and to delight—and I believe feminist art can make us better, just as I think a feminist world would make us better. But art is not just a moral act. There is a last principle which is not feminist but truly universal: vitality. Art must create the illusion of “felt life,” as Henry James suggested. Without it, the best-intentioned piece of work is mere words, a dead shell. And that is a quality for which no one can write prescriptions.

References

French, Marilyn. 1981. Shakespeare’s division of experience. New York: Summit Books.

The gospel of Thomas. 1977. In The Nag Hammadi Library in English. J. M. Robinson, ed. New York: Harper & Row.

Langer, Susanne. 1953. Feeling and form. New York: Scribner’s.

Wagner, Jane. 1986. The search for signs of intelligent life in the universe. New York: Harper & Row.

The Women's Room

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AMANDA LOHREY (ESSAY DATE 1979)

SOURCE: Lohrey, Amanda. "The Liberated Heroine: New Varieties of Defeat?" Meanjin 38, no. 3 (1979): 294-304.

In the following excerpt, Lohrey examines the plot and themes of The Women's Room, and comments on Diana Trilling's assertion that feminist works should avoid "existential despair."

As Patricia Meyer Spacks has noted, novels by women writers are an area where we have not had time to develop aesthetic distance, and any collection of them will often do no more than exemplify the eclecticism of modern fiction. This is true if one is surveying the full range (Murdoch, Lessing, Spark, Oates et al) but within that wide spectrum the last decade has seen the emergence of a clearly recognisable genre of American women's fiction—the biographical novel of the single heroic female self. This is most often a rambling episodic ego-portrait with no revealing structure that moves on the one unvarying pulse of feeling through to an indifferent or 'liberating' end. The best of these is probably Lisa Alther's Kinflicks; notable among the rest are the Canadian Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, Erica Jong's How To Save Your Own Life, Francine du Plessix Gray's Lovers and Tyrants and Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of An Ex-Prom Queen.

Almost all the novels within the genre owe something to The Bell Jar. Like Plath's Esther Greenwood, the heroines grow up acutely aware of being different; they want to succeed by passive pleasing but are troubled by the perversion of self involved in the effort. Like Esther they exhibit a certain craziness in the process of escaping their female conditioning but significantly, a craziness which is seen in retrospect to be a form of 'real' sanity—Plath without the pathology. For contemporary women writers, if not armed with a polemical feminist ideology, are at the very least informed by a neo-feminist consciousness, one which enables them to externalise their rebellion in terms of breaking out rather than internalise it self-destructively by caving in. Despite this, the end result is often much the same for the modern heroine as for Dorothea Brooke or Isabel Archer, namely some form of defeat. The former may achieve an increase in her economic and psychological independence, but at a cost often of being placed beyond society and embracing the fate of a rootless eccentric (the fate that would presumably have settled upon Isabel Archer had she not decided to sublimate her sense of destiny in the guardianship of her stepdaughter). The limitations of the new writers, whether wry and comic like Alther or precious and narcissistic like Gray, are the limitations of self-knowledge. Very few offer more than the crudest social critique, and almost all lack a political vision: a narrowness of focus is reinforced by the general reliance on individualism as a philosophy and psychology as a method.

This is reflected in the current pre-occupation of feminist literary criticism with endings. The new consciousness, while it may dissolve barriers, does not of itself engender solutions. To critics in the liberal tradition, like the Trillings, neo-feminism does not in itself offer sufficient moral baggage to engage the ethical dilemmas which are the proper sphere of the novel. In her recent essay on 'The Liberated Heroine',1 Diana Trilling points to what she regards as the common failure of women writers to address themselves 'with courage' to the 'outcome of the heroine's choice'. In other words, self-knowledge for what? The goal of liberation is eventually reached, but what comes after? A survey in this article of the fates that recent writers bestow on their heroines suggests that the neo-feminist position tends to work itself out within one of four categories: existential pessimism; emotional optimism; stoic resignation or moral impasse.

The latest of the novels by American women writers to be published in Australia makes some attempt to confront the problem of 'what happens after?' before collapsing into the first of these categories, namely existential pessimism. The Women's Room by Marilyn French2 is a novel in two parts: the second part is a liberationist version of The Group, Harvard Class of '68; a chronicle of Val, campus activist and radical feminist; Isolde, lesbian scholar; Kyla, post-grad student married to MCP nuclear physicist; Clarissa, rich girl, and Mira, the author's surrogate who arrives at Harvard in middle-age via a tortuous route that occupies the first two-thirds of a very long book.

The first part is a slice-of-women's-life-in-suburbia treatment. It begins with Mira overdoing the flirting in the local soda-parlour, experiencing a near gang-bang and marrying the dour Norm, a medical student, out of fright. Two quick children follow on agonies of poverty and failed contraception, and Mira discovers mother love. When Norm graduates they move to a lower-middle-class neighbourhood and eventually to a more affluent one. Each change of scene brings a new group of friends, all of whose marital pains are relentlessly and pedestrianly catalogued. When each group has been 'done', we move onto the next in an unending parade of Harrys and Sandras and Toms and Geraldines in what begins to read like a long-running feminist soap-opera; a saga of domestic violence, childbirth and divorce, with every now and then a perfunctory political reference dropped (Joe McCarthy, Kennedy assassinations, My Lai) to remind us of our location in time and space. But the focus of real concern rarely strays from the domestic hearth with disaster piling on disaster, until the middle of the book where Mira and her best friend have what could be reasonably described as an exchange of attempted suicides. Such literary chutzpah is breathtaking.

Eventually the eminently undesirable and flatly characterised Norm leaves the withdrawn Mira for another woman, and she takes herself off to State College where she wins a scholarship to Harvard and Adele and Sandra are replaced by Val and Co. At Harvard Mira meets Ben, a research fellow, has satisfying sex for the first time, discovers she loves him but declines to follow him to Africa and have the child he wants. Her self-assertion and refusal to fall into old traps are not altogether rewarded. The bottom drops out of the academic market, and Mira ends up a teacher in a 'third-rate community college', a lonely and eccentric figure much given to walks along the beach and existential despair: '… in a way it doesn't matter whether you open doors or close them, you still end up in a box.'

The Women's Room has a readability and earnestness that qualify it as prime consciousness-raising material: as the blurb says 'This novel changes lives'. It's an easy book to lampoon in soap-opera terms—French herself refers to her characters as 'paper dolls'—but the whole adds up to a formidable moral polemic. Of moral subtlety it has little and of emotional resonance less. None of the men exists other than as a cardboard cutout, while the women are divided into doomed victims and opportunistic survivors. Moreover the madness, infidelity, child-bashing and wife-baiting are too routinely presented as if to say: let's not over-dramatise this; it happens every day; this is what it's really like in the kitchen, one damned horrific statistic after another. In her desire to spare us nothing French produces an effect of overkill: she presents too much too thinly, and the plight of any particular character is about as affecting as a statistical profile.

The interest of the novel lies in its ending. Mira is a character of great honesty, and this honesty exemplifies itself in the resolution of her fate: the world does not ignite because Mira asserts her independence, and in her walks on the beach and in her dreams there are hints of psychological terrors yet to come, reminding us of Lionel Trilling's injunction that the writer who writes on behalf of liberal values does his/her best work 'not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general righteousness' but in making clear that 'to act against social injustice is right and noble but to choose to do so does not settle all problems, but on the contrary generates new ones of an especially difficult sort.' The High Priestess of this point of view is of course Mary McCarthy, in whose novels there is only one moral virtue beyond sceptical appraisal and that is doubt itself—doubt and the absence of self-delusion. But Diana Trilling has presumably lost patience with this relatively modest requirement. Trilling complains that the novels of feminist writers are not 'life-giving' enough, end in too much existential despair and are in danger of 'adding to the dismays of the world we live in'. She scolds writers like Lessing and Alther (and by implication Didion and French) for becoming the new 'imperialists of the self', over-absorbed in 'the quest for freedom instead of rights within society', leaving us with heroines 'vagrant, without boundaries or purchase in life'. It is no longer sufficient to confront the pitfalls attendant on any change in moral position—it is incumbent upon the heroine to make the most of it.

Notes

  1. Diana Trilling, 'The Liberated Heroine', Times Literary Supplement, 13 October 1978.
  2. Marilyn French, The Women's Room (Harcourt-Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1978).

The Bleeding Heart

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KAREN ALKALAY-GUT (REVIEW DATE FALL 1983)

SOURCE: Alkalay-Gut, Karen. "The 'Stirring Conversation': American Literature and The Bleeding Heart." Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal 9, no. 1 (fall 1983): 129-31.

In the following review, Alkalay-Gut examines the plot, structure, and characters in The Bleeding Heart, concluding that French's examination of gender roles in the novel is a "step in the right direction."

When Marilyn French's The Bleeding Heart was first reviewed, the major criticism levelled against it was that there was too much talking about issues. "Overly polemical," says Julia Klein of The New Republic.1 "… It is hard to believe it is her incessant rhetoric that instructs either her lover or her reader," says Rosellen Brown in The New York Times Book Review.2 Yet R. Z. Sheppard notes, at the conclusion of her review, "paradoxically much of the dialogue works … attentive male readers will discover why so many women are now saying 'Yes, yes' when there's 'No, no' in their eyes."3 And this is precisely the point of the endless conversations.

Conversations between men and women are rare and usually stilted in American Literature. When they exist, the point of the conversation is not to communicate information but to win a kind of power game. Hemingway's Lady Brett does not finish her sentences and thus forces others to interpret her intentions. Daisy Buchanan whispers so that men will have to lean toward her to hear her. Women win, not by convincing, but by using the situation of conversation to wield power.

But the game of power has lost its fascination to the man and woman in The Bleeding Heart. They have both learned that simply to win the battle of the sexes is to lose something more vital. Dolores Durer has "won" her freedom by leaving her weak, terrorizing husband, Anthony, and manipulating him into granting her a divorce. But she has lost because his subsequent suicide remains with her, and the children, marked by her ex-husband, are a constant memory and source of guilt. Victor Morrissey has won a passive wife. His infidelities drive her to smash her car into a wall and lose her legs. The plastic surgeons redo her maimed face, and his mistress points out:

Oh, how nice. You have what you always wanted! A woman with a child's face and a child's dependency. You don't have to worry about her running around because she's numb, and you don't have to worry about her running away because she has no legs! She's utterly housebound, utterly subject, and utterly passive. Just what you wanted! How nice to get what you want. Just what you deserve!4

Although he belongs to a society in which victory is success, the highest value, he has of course not won: the passive-aggressive situation of guilt his wife inflicts upon him for causing her accident controls him even though he is now free to be a bachelor in form and a married man in name.

Dolores is caught in her suffering and Victor in his victory. This use of symbolic names, criticized by reviewers as a "heavy handed reminder"5 is quite deliberate: the characters are caught in the stereotypes of their self-images. And they need each other to begin to break out of these stereotypes. Gradually, over the year granted to them in the book, Victor and Dolores reveal themselves, through intensive discussions, in the full horror of the stereotypes they have fulfilled. Both learn about themselves and the other as they allow themselves to react and mirror past tragedies. Having lost the game of power, they both come to realize that the stereotypes of their names—the woman as long suffering, the man as ruler—have to be changed before a more fruitful conception of human relationships can be conceived.

These roles cannot merely be rejected: Dolores tells her daughter Elspeth she has quit as a mother, but when Elspeth kills herself almost immediately after this scene, perhaps partly as a result of her mother's rejection (not of Elspeth, but of motherhood), Dolores discovers she still has the role of mother in her, even though her daughter is dead. And it is this role of mother that is the most deeply engrained and the most painful of all. These roles cannot be denied or rejected, but they may be able to be transformed.

Throughout the endless conversations there is a constant attempt on both sides to see and enable to see the stereotyped roles for what they are, and perhaps, to transcend them through mutual understanding. For the couple does not reject each other for having committed such atrocities on people who are not unlike themselves. Dolores understands Edith, Victor's wife, and identifies with her. Victor can help to explain Anthony, Dolores' ex-husband, in a way she has not conceived because she could not have understood the pressures of being a husband, a man, a father. So both are victims in the other's story of suffering. Had they married twenty years ago, they would have done similar things to each other as they had done to their spouses. When they come to understand the extent to which both of them are locked into their social stereotypes, these crimes are almost forgivable.

Victor wants to leave his wife and go with Dolores at the end. But, she feels, only by "breaking her legs," by curbing her personality, can he succeed. Still locked in his masculine personality, he does not ask her, but tells her:

I've decided … I'm going to leave Edith … I know you insist on keeping a place of your own. I won't try to move in with you. I can't anyway, I have to be in New York. But it's only a forty-five minute plane ride between cities, and we can spend weekends together.…

(p. 364)

She rejects this offer because he has simply not gone far enough. He maintains the position of the conquering male, even while his decision is a dependent one—dependent on Dolores. Although Dolores has learned to incorporate both masculine and feminine understanding, Victor has remained primarily masculine. "What I want, Victor," she tells him, "is to change the world, what do you think? To make it a place … where maybe even men will join the women because they will see that woman's way of thinking is more decent, more humane, and in the long run, Victor, more likely to preserve the human race." (p. 309) The author agrees. In an interview, Marilyn French states:

I don't want to be like men. Women still are full of the old, traditional female virtues. They cook you a pot of soup. They do the serving. They try to make you feel better. They create the felicities of life. These things are important, essential, and I don't want women to give them up. I want men to learn them. I want to feminize the world.6

And yet, although Dolores rejects Victor, and refuses to commit herself to any relationship that is not entirely free on both sides, the connection between the two does not end. The book concludes with the feeling of joy Dolores feels in Victor's presence, and the hope, faint but real, that this year of true conversation has had enormous benefits, and that some solution may be found.

All of us, round plump children, long skinny children, brown and yellow and pale and pink and red and chocolate, all born with the cancer inside, tearing around from clinic to clinic, seeking diagnosis, cure.

(p. 374)

A review of The Bleeding Heart in Ms. complains that women today want some kind of guideline for modern heterosexual relationships, "… how (and how much, and when, and why) to relate to the sort of man one might describe as Duke Charming."7 Whileapleatolearnhowto live life from literature is absurd, it is clear that—for literature, at least—a cure, or a progressive diagnosis, is here in The Bleeding Heart. Certainly the attempt to break out of the standard forms of human relationships in literature is a step in the right direction.

Notes

  1. (April 5, 1980).
  2. (March 16, 1980), p. 9.
  3. "Anguish Artist," Time (March 17, 1980), p. 92.
  4. Marilyn French, The Bleeding Heart (New York: Summit Books, 1980), p. 243. All succeeding quotations from this work refer to this text.
  5. Time (March 17, 1980), p. 92.
  6. New York Times Book Review (March 16, 1980), p. 9.
  7. Lindsey Van Gelder, "Romance Reconsidered," Ms. (May, 1980), p. 28.

Her Mother's Daughter

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KATHERINE PAYANT (REVIEW DATE 1992)

SOURCE: Payant, Katherine. "Mothers and Daughters in Recent Fiction by Women." Philological Papers 38 (1992): 212-25.

In the following excerpt, Payant discusses the plot and characterizations in Her Mother's Daughter, noting differences between this book and The Women's Room.

In the 1970s the new feminist movement affected women's novels in a number of ways, but perhaps the most obvious influence was the predominance of the bildungsroman—the novel of development tracing a protagonist struggling for individuation in patriarchy. These novels, written by white middle-class women who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, recounted the heroine's oppression in childhood, adolescence, marriage, and motherhood. They dealt with restrictions on women in all areas of American life—the double standard, stereotyping of women in the media, limitations on women's reproductive freedom, educational and career barriers faced by women, and above all, the mistreatment of women by men in love and marriage.

Although generalizations are often risky, these novels seemed to closely fit this description. Examples include Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973), Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1975), Francine du Plessix Gray's Lovers and Tyrants (1976), Marge Piercy's Small Changes (1972), and perhaps the angriest of all, Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1977). Though these feminist novels differed in the amount of overt politics and tone (some were satiric and others somber), in each the author protested societal restrictions faced by women. Reading such a novel was a crash course in consciousness raising, and the writer's anger could generate anger in the reader against patriarchy in general and the men in her life in particular.

In their content "First Wave" feminist novels seemed to reflect the general thrust and tone of the women's movement during these years. These were the years of "naming the oppressor," of tracing misogyny in male literature, of documenting examples of oppression of women in the work-place and throughout American history, and of debunking Freudian thought, which said that women's primary function is to bear and nurture the next generation. So, it was natural that fiction writers, whether they were political activists or only influenced by feminist ideas, would concentrate on "naming the oppressor"1 as well.

In the 1980s, however, though women writers have continued to reflect feminist themes, those themes have changed, one obvious difference being a turning away from women's oppression in patriarchy. Instead, writers have reflected cultural feminist attitudes, an approach stressing the strengths and values of female culture, what women can offer patriarchal society and each other, with the ultimate goal of ending patriarchy.2 Favorite topics have been themes such as female friendship—the gifts women give each other—thus the enormous popularity of Alice Walker's The Color Purple in the 1980s. Though this novel certainly portrayed the oppression of women the dominant theme was the love and support women offer other women.

One popular subject in 1980s fiction unexplored in earlier decades is the experience of motherhood and the relationship of mothers to their children, especially their daughters. Often these two related themes can be found within the same novel. Novels dealing with motherhood reflect maternalist feminist attitudes, a school of thought exploring and elevating woman's maternal function. Essentially, the maternalists, who include a founding mother of American feminism, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Adrienne Rich in our own times, believe that motherhood makes women better people. Through nurturing small children the mother, unlike the father, is forced to extend herself beyond her own ego and thus develops compassion and skill in relating to those outside herself.3

In the 1980s Marilyn French has explored the effects of motherhood and mother-daughter relations in Her Mother's Daughter (1987). In this story of three generations of American women, the protagonist is Anastasia, a liberated woman photographer of the eighties who, in her fifties, is still seeking approval and a closer relationship with her mother Belle. Belle is the daughter of Polish immigrant Frances, a poor and abused wife of a tyrannical husband. Upon her husband's death, Frances had to relinquish several of her children to foster care, and because of guilt, sorrow, and overwork is never able to nurture Belle enough.

Raised in poverty, Belle vows to give Anastasia everything she never had—music lessons, a comfortable home, and beautiful clothes. But, because of her own starved heart, she never shows her daughter the love and approval the child and woman desperately longs for. A bitter, unhappy woman, Belle sacrifices herself physically for her children's comfort but neglects their emotional nurturing. French uses the metaphor of the "midge mother," an insect whose body is sucked dry by her offspring (12). By the time her children are grown, Belle has indeed been sucked dry, but her children have not really been nourished. In this treatment of the effects of the lack of nurturing, French demonstrates the daunting power of a mother in a nuclear family, held responsible by society, herself, and her children themselves for their psychological security.

Throughout the novel, French emphasizes the primal power of the mother bond. For example, Anastasia watches her sleeping children:

Arden with her eyes open just a crack, so you couldn't be sure she was sleeping, and Billy with his thumb in his mouth—clear through until he was ten years old. They would be pink and sweet-smelling from their baths and their sweat, and warm with sleep, and my heart would roll over as I looked at them and often I'd kneel down by the side of the bed and lay my face on their cheeks.…4

Although she is powerfully drawn to her children, Anastasia realizes this primal tie can be women's ruin if they allow themselves to be consumed by it, as society has said they should. On the other hand, it is women's greatest source of strength, perhaps, as the maternalists say, what makes women morally superior to men. Says Anastasia, "women are more sensitive, more fun—all the things you have to be to raise kids …" (565).

Though Anastasia acknowledges the pleasures and power of motherhood, she vows never to be a "midge mother" like Belle. She will have a career, a life of her own, and she does, an exciting career as a free-lance photographer that takes her all over the world. As a result, her own daughter Arden resents Anastasia's career because she does not stay home like the other fifties moms and provide milk and cookies after school. For a time in the 1960s, vowing she will be a better mother than Anastasia, Arden joins a primitive commune where women do traditional work. However, by the end of the novel, Arden and Anastasia are moving toward a closer relationship; frustrated by a life of full-time child care, Arden is beginning to understand Anastasia's need for her own life, and Anastasia understands Arden's temporary need to take the opposite tack. Sadly, this rapprochement seems impossible for Belle and Anastasia. French suggests that closeness is very difficult between the pre-feminist mothers and their post-feminist daughters.

Like other 1980s novelists, French frankly acknowledges women's occasional anger at their children for restricting their lives. The bitter Belle has almost totally repressed this anger, but the feminist Anastasia recognizes it:

Mother love. There is supposed to be no room in it for coldness of heart, for a private cell for oneself, with doors that sometimes clank shut. And the more you love your children, the more shocked they are to discover that you possess a single strand of ambivalent—or negative—feeling.

Insatiable for this love we expect to be absolute, we cannot forgive its mere humanness.

(71-72)

The fact is that women do not always love their own children, and can even feel a murderous rage against them that can translate into abuse. Other feminist writers treating this subject include Mary Gordon, who in several of her novels discusses the new mother's resentment against this tiny creature who demands her whole existence, and Toni Morrison, who compassionately deals with child abuse in Tar Baby (1980). Morrison does not excuse such abuse but traces its roots to the mother's feeling of lack of control brought about by the child's intrusion into her life.

A number of feminist novelists in the 1980s suggested that woman's function of caregiver and nurturer, though sometimes dangerously limiting, can provide both gifts for the society by humanizing it, and for the woman as well. While the authors of the bildungsroman of the 1970s saw marriage and motherhood as bondage restricting female individuation, writers in the 1980s were more likely to view such relationships as vehicles for growth. In Her Mother's Daughter Anastasia explains:

I believed freedom was independence, needing no one, having your work and doing what you damn well wanted to do. And that this was what the heroic man—or woman—did, this was how they lived. And if you ended up lonely, then you lived with that. Because being with people was a compromise, a deference, a dependency.… That's what I felt. Until very recently.

(674)

In other words, we find ourselves in relationship. Near the end of the novel when Arden asks if she should stay with her husband with whom she is having problems, Anastasia replies, "I can only tell you what I know" (675). In recounting what she learned from her own marital troubles, Anastasia gives Arden the gift of her own experience and suggests that some dependency and compromise for those we love can be a source of a woman's meaning and strength. The difficult thing is not to end up like Belle, "a midge mother." This conclusion to Her Mother's Daughter seems markedly different from that of The Women's Room, whose heroine Mira refused to compromise, lived a heroic life, but ended up lonely and neurotic.…

The women's movement of the last twenty years has had profound effects on fiction by women, effects which are continuing to evolve. If the 1970s was the era of "naming the oppressor" and exploring male-female power struggles, the 1980s must be seen as the era of women together. Women writers have moved ever deeper into women's experience, telling painful and joyful truths about aspects of that experience which twenty years ago we might have considered insignificant. The most exciting part of this writing is the unfolding insights it continues to give women readers about themselves. Women writers are not only naming the oppressor, they are naming themselves, and as it has done since ancient times, this act of naming confers knowledge and power.

Notes

  1. Carol Ruth Berkin, "Clio in Search of Her Daughters/Women in Search of Their Past," in Major Problems in American Women's History, ed. Mary Beth Norton (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1989) 11.
  2. Josephine Donovan gives a good explanation of cultural feminism in ch. 2 of her book Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism (New York: Ungar, 1985).
  3. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford UP, 1986) 26-28.
  4. (New York: Summit, 1987) 92.

Further Reading

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Criticism

Dunlap, Lauren Glen. Review of The War against Women, by Marilyn French. Belles Lettres 8, no. 1 (fall 1992): 20-1.

Praises French's focus on the injustices suffered by women in The War against Women.

French, Marilyn. "Women in Language." Soundings 59, no. 3 (fall 1976): 329-44.

Examination of the semantic differences among such words as "man," "lady," and "gentleman," focusing on the ways words change in context and their impact on defining gender.

——. "Muzzled Women." College Literature 14, no. 3 (1987): 219-29.

Discusses several prominent women authors, ironically noting that female characters are seldom portrayed by women writers as having fulfilling, complete, rewarding lives.

McDaniel, Maude. "Sisters and Other Strangers." Chicago Tribune Books (2 January 1994): section 14, p. 5.

Compliments French's prose in Our Father, commenting that the work is the most balanced of French's novels.

Peat, Irene M. Review of A Season in Hell, by Marilyn French. British Medical Journal 318, no. 7179 (30 January 1999): 336.

Lauds French's insightful and meticulously detailed account of her battle with cancer in A Season in Hell.

Selway, Jennifer. "Dad's the Word." Observer (1 May 1994): 23.

Offers a mixed assessment of Our Father, noting that the novel's central themes remain "elusive."

Wagner, Linda W. "The French Definition." Arizona Quarterly 38, no. 4 (winter 1982): 293-302.

Evaluation of the plot and structure of The Women's Room and The Bleeding Heart, contending that French's desire to define terms and language in her narratives slows her storytelling but makes the importance of language clear.

Wilson, Anna. Persuasive Fictions: Feminist Narrative and Critical Myth, Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001, 161 p.

Includes the essay "The Women's Room and the Fiction of Consciousness," as well as bibliographical information.

OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:

Additional coverage of French's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 31; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 10, 18, 60, 177; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; DISCovering Author Modules: Dramatists, Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2.

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French, Marilyn (Vol. 10)