Shakespeare's Division of Experience
As a reading of William Shakespeare’s works and as an exposition of certain themes in Western culture, this work raises a whole host of questions which can best be gotten at, perhaps, in the context of Marilyn French’s work to date. The author of a highly-praised work on James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), The Book as World (1976), French is best-known for her two novels of emerging female awareness, The Women’s Room (1977) and The Bleeding Heart (1980). French did her Ph.D. work at Harvard University in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; her first novel The Women’s Room draws on that experience. In that novel, the central character, a female graduate student at Harvard, comes to a profound new sense of personal awareness and maturity through renouncing her inherited stereotypes of what is appropriate behavior for a woman in favor of a strong affirmation of herself as a capable adult able to make responsible choices and to take charge of her own life.
What makes The Women’s Room so powerful is its evocation of the conditions in which young women came of age and entered into adulthood in the United States in the 1950’s. Those conditions are characterized by bondage and failure—the ties to home and husband and family and suburbia which could fulfill few and which destroyed many. Against that background, French contrasts the sense of post-divorce 1960’s freedom, in this case the freedom to return to graduate school, to take charge of one’s life, to start anew with a sense of self that is substantially healthier and more responsible than any the 1950’s world could offer.
The Bleeding Heart takes the story of the professional academic woman a few years further. In this novel, the central character, now a member of the academic profession, gets a grant that takes her to England and an English university for a year of intensive research. While there, she has a tumultuous affair with a man whom she alternately clings to and struggles against as she tries to consolidate her gains in terms of self-worth and self-assurance.
What these works have in common, against the background of the women’s movement, is a sense of the profound struggle necessary to overcome the crippling self-image women in America derived from their culture’s expectations of them in their formative years, especially the 1950’s. Clearly, women who grew up in postwar America were sold a horrible and dehumanizing bill of goods; they were told that if they essentially remained children and did not enter the adult work-world, but instead mothered their husbands and their children, they would be well taken care of. Considering much of the rhetoric of the women’s movement, that is a very seductive self-image, one that is frighteningly difficult to overcome, even if the alternatives are madness or despair.
One of the ways in which women have had to fight to make room for themselves as adults in professional circles and to claim their right to a positive image of themselves is to read the condition of their formative existence backwards in time and to universalize it by making it a fundamental condition of Western society. This is not to say that former ages were not sexist, at least in our sense of the term. It is to say that the kind of criticism that French writes in Shakespeare’s Division of Experience is understandable more in terms of what is needed now for women to lay claim to their own share of the...
(The entire section is 1432 words.)