A Sorrowful Woman

by Gail Godwin

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What is the theme of Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman"?

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Gail Godwin's story examines the rejection of the traditional roles assigned to women—to be self-sacrificing wives and mothers—and the toll that this rejection can take on women.

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Gail Godwin's story examines the rejection of the traditional roles assigned to women—to be self-sacrificing wives and mothers—and the toll that this rejection can take on women. The woman in the story concludes early on that this self-sacrifice is not her destiny. She gradually withdraws from her husband and son and embraces her solitude, though perhaps not fully enjoying it. Ultimately, she is unable to find fulfillment in either the domestic world of her home or the solitude of her room, despite her husband's extraordinary accommodation of her increasing demands. The fact that she must be drugged to sleep suggests that she is deeply unhappy and cannot identify what would provide purpose in her life. She is the "sorrowful woman" because she finds no lasting relief or fulfillment in any of the ways she tries to approach her life. The manner in which the woman behaves before her suicide suggests that she carries guilt for her failure to fulfill the role she had once consented to in marrying her husband and bearing a child.

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Gail Godwin’s short story “A Sorrowful Woman” deals with a number of themes, including the following:

  • ambivalent feelings, as the opening two sentences suggest:
  • One winter evening she looked at them: the husband durable, receptive, gentle; the child a tender golden three. The sight of them made her so sad and sick she did not want to see them ever again.
  • cooperation in marriage, as the second paragraph suggests.
  • the tensions that can result from being a mother and wife, as the third paragraph implies.
  • the comfort of having an understanding spouse, as the fourth paragraph suggests.
  • the idea that parenthood is not entirely pleasurable, as the fifth paragraph suggests.
  • the wife’s growing lack of control, which is contrasted with the husband’s consistent calmness and adaptability (as the seventh paragraph implies).
  • the contrast between the moods and personalities of the hired girl, the father, and the child (on the one hand) and those of the mother (on the other hand).
  • the mother’s growing impetuousness and (self-) destructive behavior, as when she fires the young nanny.
  • the exceptional devotion of the man, both as a husband and as a father, as suggested by his behavior after the nanny is fired.
  • the consolations (but perhaps also the escapism) provided by art, as when the woman’s reading and writing are described.
  • the increasingly odd behavior of the woman (which creates growing suspense), as when she no longer wants to see her own child and husband.
  • The even more odd behavior of the woman when she engages in a flurry of activity just before apparently committing suicide.

The absence of commentary by the narrator (aside from the opening epigraph, which may imply sympathy for the woman) makes it difficult to know how to respond to this story. Is it simply a slice of one particular family’s life? Does it suggest some larger meaning about life in general? Should we feel sympathetic toward the mother? Is she genuinely sick? If so, why did neither she nor the husband seek professional help for her? (He doesn’t seem surprised by her apparent suicide.) Is the woman simply selfish, or can she truly not help herself? These are the kinds of questions the story might raise in the minds of some readers, and raising questions – rather than answering them – seems to be the story’s main effect. Many will find it difficult to feel much sympathy for this woman, but perhaps we are meant to question such a reaction. If there is a larger theme to this story, perhaps it is “the mystery of life.”

By the way, a story worth comparing and contrasting with this one is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

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How does the theme of self-discovery play out in the narrative of Gail Godwin's "A Sorrowful Woman"?

One might argue that the theme of self-discovery in Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman" plays out as the young woman breaks ties with the obligations society has imposed on her to be a wife and mother. As she breaks ties with her obligations, she discovers she wants nothing more than independence.

As the story progresses, the young woman feels more and more that she is sick of the presence of both her three-year-old son and her husband. Her husband very lovingly understands and treats her as a woman who is ill. Each night, he gives her a sleeping draught and takes upon himself more and more of her responsibilities during the day. When she grows sick of the nanny they hire to care for the boy, he even takes on the role of a single working father.

At first, the young woman is content just to see her son very little. The nanny brings him into her bedroom to see her for a short time only twice a day. Her husband pays courtship to her by frequently inviting her out to dinner. But, soon, she grows even more distant from both her son and her husband. She even moves out of their bedroom and into the room that had been occupied by the nanny. Her growing distance from her husband and son are evidence that, as she phrases it, "I'm not myself anymore." If she feels she is no longer herself, then she is at a state in which she must discover a new self, which illustrates the theme of self-discovery.

In the nanny's room, she begins to explore new selves by staring out the window, seeing new things, reading new books, writing poetry, and behaving at times as the nanny had behaved in the room. The narrator describes her exploration of new selves in the following:

All day long she stayed in the white room. She was a young queen, a virgin in a tower, she was the previous inhabitant, the girl with all the energies. She tried these personalities on like costumes, then discarded them.

As she continues to explore new selves, she grows distant from her husband and son to the point that she no longer sees them at all and only accepts notes from them. Her exploration of selves and continued distance from her husband and son shows that her only desire is to rid herself of her obligations imposed on her by society and to be what she wants to be--independent. At one point, in secret, while her family is out, she returns to performing the obligations society has imposed on her by baking, cooking, knitting, and doing the laundry; but doing these things displeases her so much that she commits suicide. Her suicide further demonstrates that it was her discovery of new selves not imposed on her by society that kept her alive.

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