Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Small Changes was Marge Piercy’s third novel. Her second, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970), received critical praise as an especially lean and energetic account of political activism. Small Changes was termed disappointing by some critics of the time who did not appreciate Piercy’s shift from fast-paced revolution to the small, incremental changes of Beth and Miriam. Feminists and the so-called progressive publications, however, hailed the novel as a breakthrough. It chronicles and applauds the changes taking place in women’s roles in the 1970’s, something that the less radical The Women’s Room (1977), by Marilyn French, would do again with popular success several years later.

In writing Small Changes, Piercy drew on previous feminist literature, notably Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), reemphasizing the basic needs of women, such as independence and self-fulfillment, and the solidarity of the movement. Indeed, Small Changes is in many senses a classic of the second wave of feminism, and feminist criticism has cited it for its pioneering efforts in the areas of female character development and the inspired interweaving of that which is felt with that which must be done if sexual inequities are ever to be overcome.

Small Changes also develops many of the themes to which Piercy has returned and which she has refined in later novels, such as Vida (1980) and Braided Lives (1982), and in much of her poetry. Few writers can convey the despair invoked in the modern woman by the “dead ends and broken connections” forced on her by a repressive society as realistically as Piercy does. She has perfected the shock of recognition, so that, while a reader might be able intellectually to disregard or evade the political and social issues which Piercy raises, she or he is compelled to confront such issues on a personal level. For Piercy, who believes that the personal and the political are one and the same, that is a victory.