Last Updated on October 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680
Gail Godwin’s 1971 short story is a product of its time. Perhaps modern readers, who live in a much-changed world more than fifty years later, might see the story as dated or illegible. Indeed, the circumstances Godwin presents—an overwhelmed woman brought to the brink by the seemingly inescapable demands of female domesticity—might feel less familiar to today's readers. However, for readers in the 1970s, when women remained confined by the demands of household and childcare duties, this scenario must have felt much more poignant. Today, many women now work outside the home, and their income is a significant and necessary contribution to the family finances. More women today are also single and functioning as single parents without the aid of a nurturing spouse. To some, this sorrowful woman's lot could look either enviable because of her affluence or incomprehensible because women now expect to have many options in the wider world.
Yet, it is in part because of groundbreaking stories like Godwin's, whose voices buoyed the "second wave" of feminism inspired by earlier writers such as Virginia Woolf and Kate Chopin, that women have greater autonomy and more options for fulfillment. Like much of Godwin's other work, the story is a period piece, capturing a snapshot of how the world looked at a particular time and place, in a particular social context, to a particular kind of woman. Godwin’s style reflects this sense of the story as a “portrait.” The brief story is told from a third-person point of view, depicting the thoughts and emotions of each family member in clear terms unburdened by metaphor. While the dialogue and interiority of each character guide the narrative flow, so does the changing of the seasons, a natural metaphor that inversely mirrors the mother’s state of mind. As winter abates and spring blooms, her depression worsens, and, in the season of renewal, she passes from this world. In this sense, Godwin argues that her depression is unlike winter; it is not a passing season one must bear but a ceaseless burden that one cannot escape.
However, many read the story with an unforgivingly critical eye. Godwin's protagonist, the sorrowful woman, is a privileged woman. She has a husband who comfortably supports the family on his sole income. There is ample food in the house, the wife has a "room of her own" she can retreat to, and the husband can afford to hire a caretaker to assume his wife's duties in the home. Women of color, working-class women, and third-world women might look aghast at this woman's "problems" as not so much problems but the by-product of too much privilege leading to self-absorption. Many women, then and now, could not afford the luxury of being depressed and sitting in a room reading books. Many have critiqued the feminism of Godwin's period for this focus on women of affluent means looking for self-actualization. It has been amply noted that other women of the period had to deal with rape, abusive husbands, exploitative work conditions, unsafe neighborhoods, and a myriad of other social problems. Indeed, feminism of this time faced many accusations based on exclusionary narratives such as “A Sorrowful Woman.”
It might be more helpful, however, to focus on what the story is than what it is not. Readers can look at it through a psychological lens as an accurate portrait of how clinical depression can shut a person down into a world of anger and withdrawal that might lead to suicide. Readers might also discuss if there were more effective interventions the husband might have tried and talk about the importance of communication. Without dismissing the economic pain and violence less privileged women have suffered and continue to suffer due to class, race, and ethnic discrimination, Godwin's tale still reflects a deeply-felt truth: everyone aspires to lead the most fulfilled life possible. Godwin’s story indicates that contentment is not simply a function of material wealth or social status; instead, it is an internal feeling that must be sought and cultivated and, if suppressed, can have dire consequences.