Marilyn French French, Marilyn (Vol. 177) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marilyn French 1929-

(Born Marilyn Edwards; has also written under the pseudonym Mara Solwoska) American novelist, critic, essayist, memoirist, historian, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of French's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10, 18, and 60.

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.

Biographical Information

French was born on 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. Instead of pursuing a graduate degree, 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, who 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. The critical and commercial success of The Women's Room allowed French to pursue writing full-time. 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 continues 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, left her vulnerable to man's compulsion to exercise power over it. 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 into 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. The 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. A smoker for four decades before her diagnosis, 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 of a three-volume series under the title From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women. Bringing together a wealth of 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.

Marilyn French and Barbara A. Bannon (interview date 7 March 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Marilyn, and Barbara A. Bannon. “Marilyn French.” Publishers Weekly 217, no. 9 (7 March 1980): 6-7.

[In the following interview, French discusses the role of feminism in literature and society as well as her novel The Bleeding Heart.]

Seated in the lounge of New York's Algonquin Hotel, sipping a Bloody Mary and smoking a thin, brown More cigarette, Marilyn French looks like a well-to-do suburban housewife relaxing before catching a train home. She has just been listening sympathetically to another woman's wry account of how “the children will leave you alone in the kitchen for hours when you're making grilled cheese sandwiches, but if you sit down...

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Peter B. Erickson (review date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Erickson, Peter B. Review of Shakespeare's Division of Experience, by Marilyn French. Women's Studies 9 (1982): 189-201.

[In the following review, Erickson criticizes French's flawed examination of gender divisions in the works of William Shakespeare in Shakespeare's Division of Experience.]

Of the host of critics cited by Marilyn French, her deepest affinity is with Leslie Fiedler. Like its precursor The Stranger in Shakespeare, French's book [Shakespeare's Division of Experience] begins by analyzing men's perturbed relations with women in the Henry VI plays and ends by noting the evacuation from The Tempest of the dangerous...

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Marilyn French and Janet Todd (interview date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Marilyn, and Janet Todd. “Marilyn French.” In Women Writers Talking, edited by Janet Todd, pp. 69-78. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1983.

[In the following interview, French discusses her body of work, the masculinity of language, and the critical reception of her novels.]

The room was elegant, expensive, overlooking Central Park; the interview formal, businesslike. It was my first meeting with Marilyn French and there was no intimacy or memories in our conversation.

I asked her about her first published book—on James Joyce's Ulysses—and why she chose to write on this topic. “It was my doctoral...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 3 May 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals, by Marilyn French. Publishers Weekly 227, no. 18 (3 May 1985): 58.

[In the following review, the critic praises French's central argument in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals but notes that the book is “overlong” and presents “a great deal of repetition.”]

In her bold, imaginative attempt to change the way we view our culture, the author of The Women's Room synthesizes an enormous amount of material from such diverse fields as anthropology, history, sociology, linguistics and science [in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals]. The philosophical basis of all...

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Mary Rose Sullivan (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: 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, pp. 41-7. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Sullivan examines how French portrays strained family relationships in Her Mother's Daughter.]

The title of Marilyn French's novel signals her view of the complex and mysterious tie that binds mothers and daughters. For French, a woman is, for better or worse, eternally her mother's daughter and, as the proverbial phrase itself seems wryly to suggest, the resemblance is likely to be for worse, not...

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Julie Wheelwright (review date 3 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wheelwright, Julie. “The New Avengers.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 196 (3 April 1992): 44-5.

[In the following review, Wheelwright compares The War against Women with Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women.]

To university students across North America, Marilyn French's novel The Women's Room was the feminist bible for the 1970s. French's portrait of a housewife who trades a claustrophobic marriage for graduate school was confirmation that our mothers were suffering from a similar malaise. The mad/angry wife, the tortured female intellectual stuck with “shit and string beans” and the parade of selfish males became...

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Vara Neverow-Turk (review date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Neverow-Turk, Vara. “Global War against Women.” ELT: English Literature in Translation, 1880-1920 36, no. 1 (1993): 127-31.

[In the following review, Neverow-Turk argues that although the subject material of The War against Women is familiar, “the impact of the book is still intense and disturbing.”]

Marilyn French's The War against Women is a succinct, up-to-date, readable and compelling reiteration of the claims, advanced in 1979 by Kathleen Barry in Female Sexual Slavery, that there is an actual global conspiracy against women and that the conspiracy is actively sponsored, defended, funded and enforced by the patriarchy that...

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Georgia Jones-Davis (review date 27 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones-Davis, Georgia. “Soup's On.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 February 1994): 12.

[In the following review, Jones-Davis criticizes French's prose in Our Father, arguing that the novel is “too preachy and badly written to count as literature.”]

Imagine if King Lear deserved the scorn of Goneril and Regan, and even that of kindly young Cordelia; if he had committed incest with them; and had fathered a fourth child with his humble servant (good sport at her making?); if the four sisters hated each other as much as they loathed their sire and found themselves locked in his castle together, there to watch the old man die, wondering who would...

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Marilyn French and Maureen Freely (interview date 22 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Marilyn, and Maureen Freely. “Woman: Mother Courage: Maureen Freely Talks to Marilyn French.” Guardian (22 October 1998): 4.

[In the following interview, French discusses American conservatism, the record of her battle with cancer in A Season in Hell, and modern feminist literature.]

I first met Marilyn French about 10 years ago, when she came to London to promote a novel called Her Mother's Daughter. I was working for a feminist magazine that was to go out of business a few weeks later. I was going through my black phase, although due to lack of funds the blacks were fast fading into grey. This was in sharp contrast to everyone else...

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Mary Margaret McCabe (review date 6 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McCabe, Mary Margaret. “Laughing in Its Face.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4988 (6 November 1998): 28.

[In the following review, McCabe considers several titles which offer personal perspectives on cancer, including French's A Season in Hell.]

Death may be common to us all, but it is irredeemably solitary. Can others' experience of the imminence of death ever help us to escape that private view? In these books, four people describe—in quite different modes—their experiences with cancer. In 1997, Ruth Picardie, a former Guardian journalist, died as a consequence of breast cancer. Before I Say Goodbye contains the columns she wrote as the...

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Kathleen Woodward (review date January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Woodward, Kathleen. “In Sickness and Health.” Women's Review of Books 16, no. 4 (January 1999): 2-4.

[In the following review, Woodward compares A Season in Hell with Jane Lazarre's Wet Earth and Dreams, commenting that “[t]heir stories are radically different, but neither one sentimentalizes the experience of suffering.”]

The risk of breast cancer for women in the United States is one in ten by the age of eighty; one out of every 55 women will get ovarian or primary peritoneal cancer; 85 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease … We live in a culture saturated with statistics that...

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Carolyn Dever (essay date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dever, Carolyn. “The Feminist Abject: Death and the Constitution of Theory.” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 2 (summer 2000): 185-206.

[In the following essay, Dever examines the works of several modern feminist authors—particularly focusing on The Women's Room and Carolyn Heilbrun's Death in a Tenured Position—and notes how they all portray feminism within their own unique personal and social contexts.]

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance.


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Roberta Rubenstein (essay date June 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rubenstein, Roberta. “Feminism, Eros and Coming of Age.” Frontiers 22, no. 2 (June 2001): 1-19.

[In the following essay, Rubenstein explores how feminist authors have portrayed female aging and maturity in their works, particularly in Doris Lessing's Love, Again and French's My Summer with George.]

Nearly a half century ago, Simone de Beauvoir observed that the interval between “maturity” and “old age” is an especially problematic time for women. In her view, women who have outgrown their once clearly delimited social and biological functions as mates and mothers find no clear cultural scripts to guide them during the years and decades that...

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Clara Thomas (review date September 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Clara. “Journeys across Time and Water.” Books in Canada 31, no. 6 (September 2002): 29.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas praises the wealth of information presented in From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume I: Origins but predicts that the series will be controversial among historians.]

Marilyn French is a well-known feminist scholar, teacher and novelist. A History of Women, her work-in-progress, is obviously designed to be a comprehensive and authoritative work, a bedrock standby for all enquiring women and especially for those who teach and take Women's Studies courses. Accordingly, this first volume, From Eve to...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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

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

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

McDaniel 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....

(The entire section is 188 words.)