A Sorrowful Woman

by Gail Godwin

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Last Updated on October 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655


The Effects of Motherhood on Personhood

Motherhood, as Godwin shows, is a complex role that demands much of the women who choose it. To be a mother, she explains, a woman must sacrifice certain elements of herself to play the part demanded of her. Responsibility to her partner and her child divides her into two halves: one, a doting parent and loving partner; the other, an autonomous, well-rounded individual. These two halves are often in conflict, a battle for control that can never be amicably resolved. Balance is a difficult task to achieve, and the mother in “A Sorrowful Woman” has lost it entirely. She has spent the last four years of her life focused on conceiving and raising a child whom she loves despite her poor treatment of him. However, in doing so, she has lost herself. When her husband hires a nanny, she sees the liveliness and joy of her lost youth in the girl, and the nanny’s artistic efforts and easy manner remind her of who the wife used to be. 

The wife cannot reconcile herself as she is with herself as she was but neither can she see a way forward. She finds herself stuck in a damaging stasis; at once, she mourns herself and her freedom and wishes to be other than she was while also loving her husband and son and feeling guilty for being unable to act as she feels. Her crisis is not unfamiliar to parents, as her responsibilities, though much loved, weigh heavily on her, and she cannot escape their draw. 

Damaging Expectations

Part of the narrative focuses on the wife’s—and to an extent the husband’s—desire to get “better” and return to their normal life. However, getting “better” means returning to the traditional role expected of her, a fact she cannot face. The pressure of social expectations, which describe what a mother must be and how she must act, has crippled her. It is as if to be a model mother, she must give up some part of herself in the process. Indeed, the context of the short story’s publication fuels this reading, driving home the point that contemporary sociocultural norms limit women’s agency outside the domestic realm. 

By imagining “healing” or becoming “better” as a return to normalcy, Godwin highlights the intense feeling of tradition and convention that women in the mid-to late-twentieth century felt. Such roles felt inadequate, yet even the idea of wishing for something else or altering such expectations was unthinkable, let alone considering escaping them. Indeed, women, such as the sorrowful woman in the story, paved the way for modern feminists to discover new avenues for struggling women and to discard old expectations in favor of new, more empathetic ones. 

How Depression Alters the Mind

One of the most universal themes of “A Sorrowful Woman” appears in the wife’s slow descent into depersonalization. The rapidity with which she loses first herself, then her desires, then, finally, her will to live, reflects a poignant reality that speaks to the dangers of clinical depression. In the beginning, she simply appears tired. She cares for her family and wishes she did not feel as she does. Importantly, her feelings are still evident. As the story progresses, the wife begins to lose these emotions. Overcome by discordant desires and drowning in nostalgia, regret, and guilt, she soon becomes numb. The swirling collection of powerful emotions that brought her low no longer affects her as they once did, but neither does anything else. Nothing, not even love for her husband or child, can penetrate the veil of deep depression, a shroud to which she eventually succumbs. No longer like herself, she acts violently and coldly, and the world does not seem to touch her melancholy. More than Godwin’s focus on motherhood and social expectation, her focus on the effects of depression background the story’s central messaging. 

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