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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 198

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One of the central themes in A Sorrowful Woman by Gail Godwin is depression. The main character suffers from depression and the author reveals how her condition adversely affects her family. For instance, she does not seem to care for her son and beats him on more than one occasion. She cannot stand looking at her husband and child. When her spouse employs a nanny to help her, she starts locking herself in her room and uses notes instead of speaking. Eventually she dies, the reader assumes, because of depression.

Another theme that is highlighted is tolerance. The husband is tolerant of his wife. Despite her throwing tantrums and even abusing their child, the husband tries to help her in various ways. For instance, he hires a nanny when he notices that their son is overwhelming his wife. In addition, when the woman fires the nanny, the husband takes up the role of both father and mother. He cooks and takes their son to school. Because of his tolerance, their marriage stands these tribulations despite the wife being withdrawn. Furthermore, when she decides to use notes with him, the husband obliges and tries to make her feel better.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

Gail Godwin is a feminist author who explores the trials and ordeals of modern women. In Dream Children (1976), a collection of her early short stories, she examines the lives of women who are disappointed, betrayed, and lost, women who are desperately trying to escape their unfulfilled lives. “A Sorrowful Woman,” which comes from this collection, creates an ironic fable about a woman who can no longer accept her role as wife and mother, the role that patriarchal myths have defined as the proper role for women. Feminists have pointed out how women are trapped by a feminine mystique that holds them up as perfect nurturers and caretakers. To rebel against such a role was once diagnosed as a sickness. This trap or mystique is what the story’s protagonist is fighting against, but she sees no alternatives, nor can she define or clearly express her problem. The sorrowful woman represents a type of woman who was not meant to be defined as a wife and mother and who finds herself trapped with no options. The fable maintains its sense of universality. The woman’s problem is not created by a husband who is demanding and restrictive; the husband is all too understanding, and the child adjusts well to his separation from the mother. Their acceptance, however, only seems to put more pressure on her to conform to her role.

The remedies proposed to solve the woman’s problems are all counterproductive. First, she seeks rest and reprieve from her duties, but a temporary respite is not the solution. Her problem is not overwork; it is the inability to accept her position. Even having a sitter come in to assume her duties does not relieve her from contending with her husband and child. Although she is eventually relieved of their physical presence, their written communications still hem her in.

Her life of withdrawal is equally unproductive. She puts on her old school sweater and escapes into novels, idling away her days and taking sleeping medicine to get her through the night. She seems to have no options open to her but withdrawal. Nevertheless, her withdrawal goes beyond the simple psychological problem of depression. Because the story gives no psychological reason for her withdrawal, it is clear that she cannot tolerate the role that has been given her, nor can she find herself in any other role. Her final attempt to return to her duties kills her, for she is trying to live out a role she can no longer sustain.

Gail Godwin tries to capture the confusion of modern women trapped in worlds they cannot control. “A Sorrowful Woman” is a simple parable that shows how a woman with narrow options unsuccessfully tries to escape her condition through withdrawal and isolation. It has many affinities with a classic piece of feminist fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” In both stories, women try to escape the restrictions of family life. Both are upset and cannot see their children. The husbands in both stories seem to act in the best interest of their wives but only drive the wives into further isolation. The heroine in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” escapes into fantasy and madness; the woman in “A Sorrowful Woman” retrenches and works herself to death, exhausting her energies in trying to fit a role that does not suit her.