French, Marilyn (Vol. 18)
French, Marilyn 1929–
French is an American novelist, critic, and short story writer. In her work she seeks to clarify human values of the past, portraying their importance and influence on modern thought. She draws upon her experiences of marriage, motherhood, and divorce, perhaps most notably in The Women's Room. She has also written under the pseudonym Mara Solwoska. (See also CLC, Vol. 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
The Book as World is an exciting book for two reasons: it has a coherent thesis which, if not absolutely original, does make a convincing case for a new reading of Ulysses; and its close reading of the text is exceptionally intelligent and illuminating. Marilyn French's main interest is in the style, or perhaps one should say the styles, of the novel, and in the roles of the narrator. She posits the notion of a malevolent narrator who contemptuously refuses to mediate the events in the book for the reader who is thereby forced to engage in that process himself, sometimes against the apparent wishes of the scandalously unreliable narrator. He wears a variety of masks; the first, in the early chapters, fairly objective, becoming more ironic, then derisive, and finally impersonal and indifferent. The reader, of whom much is demanded, is put in the same position as Bloom or Stephen in having to contend for the virtues of charity, intellectual integrity, and basic human decency in a hostile or indifferent universe, and always in a state of uncertainty. (pp. 188-89)
It would be misleading to attempt an abstract of her general argument since this is developed through a complex, though always clear, critical examination of the text. There is no aspect of the book that her keen mind does not illuminate….
Of course the reader will want to quibble with some of Marilyn French's assertions…. But on the whole this book is a marvellous demonstration that 'Ulysses is a monument defining morality in a relativistic world'. (p. 189)
Vincent Mahon, "Reviews: 'The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses"'," in The Modern Language Review (© Modern Humanities Research Association 1979), Vol. 74, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 188-90.
Marilyn French's reading of Ulysses offers a bold and challenging new interpretation of the novel while most Joyceans are spending their time glossing and footnoting. The originality of The Book as World is found in its sustained effort to relate Joyce's successive styles to the overall meaning of the novel. It is odd that a novel with such a reputation for consummate artistic design should also be universally recognized to be formally problematic. Every serious reader of Ulysses must grapple with the apparent divergence of matter and manner, of surface and symbol. Marilyn French refuses to apologize for the way the various styles of the later chapters seem to overwhelm the developing story of Bloom and Stephen; instead she offers a reading in which these styles are intrinsic to Joyce's narrative strategy. Ulysses has never before been such a fully coherent novel.
The reader, not Bloom, is French's Ulysses, for only the reader "is aware of all elements inside the novel as well as all things outside to which it alludes." (p. 435)
The inevitable objection to French's argument is that, intelligent as it is, it is too schematic. Her first chapter contains an elaborate table of the journeys in Ulysses. This table must make Stuart Gilbert, somewhere in immortal literary commentator's heaven, happy, but it makes me rather nervous. French ranges more widely than her table—complete with primary, secondary, and tertiary focus for each chapter—would suggest. Still, the design she discerns is a rigid one, and sometimes it is difficult to sort out how much she has...
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Cynthia Propper Seton
Marilyn French has written her second political novel, which is to say that the actions of the characters in both books are intended to demonstrate an ideological point of view. There was an almost documentary quality to The Women's Room, the long, widely-read first novel, which dramatized in two sections a rage-filled fundamentalist feminism. (p. 1)
Polemical though it was, The Women's Room had its strengths. Its energy from start to finish derived from true fury. And in the beginning the very voice of the narrator who walks along the Maine shore seemed to me quite fine.
This very validity is what is missing in The Bleeding Heart. Where the rage was fresh in the first novel, it seems indulgent here. The women in suburbia were crying into real dishwater. This heroine [Dolores] is merely pretentious. (pp. 1-2)
I am myself a feminist and am affronted by three major unexamined assumptions that underlie this novel. First, the focus on sex, and Dolores' record of ecstasy, seem not only false but tyrannizing, and particularly unfair to readers, feminists or not, who can only look in dismay at their own poor showing. Second is the assumption that there is no moral dimension to sexual activity, that sex alone, among all interchanges between human beings, is free of this burdensome consideration. For instance, there is a turnover of lovers who are easily accommodated in the households where children are growing up.
And third is the attitude towards children. The many women in this book vow that they love and adore their children. But the children—and we meet a lot of them—turn sour. We are assured that the reason for this is the patriarchal structure of the family which fosters a viciousness in the father, and causes the mother to become a buffer. No doubt there is an element of truth in that. But one is left with the further assumption that unbullied by vicious fathers, children could be relied upon to flower and flourish. It is their natural tendency. Their intellectual and moral development will require no self-discipline, self-denial, on the part of the mother. All she has to do is satisfy her own needs. Dolores tries and tries. (p. 2)
Cynthia Propper Seton, "Love in the Middle Ages," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), March 9, 1980, pp. 1-2.
Here is the sound of an author tipping her hand: "She turned, as always, to analysis, being a twentieth century woman and so subject to the superstition that what the mind could understand couldn't any longer hurt the heart, that what the tongue could utter was in the hand's control." It is the sound of an author urgently ordering and overruling her character, laboring to construct a sense of agon—contest, choice—when the evidence is already in and the outcome safely determined. This tone dominates Marilyn French's second novel, "The Bleeding Heart," and that is regrettable, because Miss French speaks to urgent issues between men and women, between what she sees as the unarmed individual and an oppressive society.
That she "speaks to them" at all, instead of embodying them is, however, the problem: Miss French has the soul of a polemicist nobly and earnestly gotten up in novelist's clothing. I truly wished the disguise had worked more than intermittently, but it is no surprise that anger and righteous disgust are vivid in their colors and will show through. "The Bleeding Heart" is not so vengeful as "The Women's Room," Miss French's first novel, but it is still undermined as fiction by its commitment to political rather than esthetic truth-seeking. As a reader I am never pleased to have to decide which of these commitments means more to me. In a more complex novel, they would not be separable….
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No one can accuse Marilyn French of having more than one string to her bow. If her first novel, "The Women's Room," was a didactic demonstration of why marriage won't work until the foundations of industrial society are altered, then her new book, "The Bleeding Heart," is exactly the same thing…. The trouble … is that her first novel succeeded despite its grave artistic shortcomings. Indeed, she managed to turn those shortcomings to her advantage, by saying, in so many words, that if the men in her story were stick figures, it was because men in reality are stick figures; if the story she was telling was dreary, it was because the reality of marriage was dreary; and if her narrator's voice was monomaniacal, it was because she had been driven nearly mad by the truth. All of which lent "The Women's Room" considerable documentary power, and, by a sort of reverse english, a certain esthetic strength as well.
But we know what Miss French is going to say in "The Bleeding Heart"—at least we do after 20 or 30 pages…. [We] know that the final message will be that marriage won't work until the foundations of industrial society are altered, because she has already told us that. (pp. 194-95)
[When] Miss French can't think of any verb at all to color the way her characters talk, she indulges the annoying mannerism of inserting adverbs after statements—"'Do you?' Bitterly." "'Are they loose?' Worried." "'Really? What...
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