Themes

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

The themes of Women on the Margins are the importance of a support structure in women's lives, the tenacity of the female spirit, and the influence of religion on the female pscyhe.

In her book, Davis delineates the story of three seventeenth century women: Marie Guyart (Marie de l’Incarnation), Maria Sibylla Merian,...

(The entire section contains 562 words.)

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The themes of Women on the Margins are the importance of a support structure in women's lives, the tenacity of the female spirit, and the influence of religion on the female pscyhe.

In her book, Davis delineates the story of three seventeenth century women: Marie Guyart (Marie de l’Incarnation), Maria Sibylla Merian, and Glikl bas Judah Leib. Marie was a Catholic, Glikl a Jew, and Maria a Protestant. Despite their respective talents, all three women were relegated to the margins of society. 

Davis's book tells the story of how Marie, Glikl, and Maria transcended their unenviable positions within the social structure of their times. Religion was an influential factor in the lives of these three women; it shaped their worldviews and attitudes towards suffering, sin, and redemption.

Glikl's autobiography consists of a book of stories; these contained intimate details about her domestic life and invariably explore the connection between "morals, spiritual inquiry, and religious reflection." Yet, interspersed between the "discrete and prickly memories of her life" are fictional portrayals of the human experience.

Glikl's scholarship was deemed presumptuous by the rabbinical ecclesiastical authorities, but she was always careful to construct her stories within "a Jewish and biblical frame." Glikl prospered in her literary and business endeavors even after her husband's death. In life, Glikl's husband had trusted her implicitly to fulfill her duties as a full partner in the family business. Glikl's tenacious nature and the support she received from her husband enabled her to transcend her marginalized position in society.

For her part, Marie Guyart was equally religious. In her youth, she studied the life of Teresa of Avila, the mystical works of Saint Dionysus the Areopagite, and the scriptures in the Louvain Catholic tradition. It was the Feuillants Director (first Dom Francois and then Dom Raymond de Saint Bernard) who aided Marie in her efforts to explore the benefits of experiential religious endeavors. Dom Raymond was instrumental in Marie's decision to "abandon her soul passively to the Divine Spirit." The support Marie received from Dom Raymond and Dom Francois were invaluable. They were instrumental in her first efforts at creating pedagogic compositions. Later in life, Marie Guyart became Marie de l’Incarnation.

She wrote her autobiography, including stories that normalized the experience of the Native American girls she taught. The support from Marie's son was also invaluable; it was he who encouraged Marie to compose her autobiography, which he edited as La Vie de venerable Mere Marie de l’Incarnation (1677). Marie's Ursuline training also led her to see the truth of the religious concept that "Religion makes all its subjects equal."

Meanwhile, Maria Sibylla Merian was a female pioneer in the field of entomology during her time. In later life, she left her husband to join the Labadist religious community. She was not without a support structure. Maria was accompanied on her many travels by her mother and daughter. Davis characterizes Maria's immersion in the iconoclastic Labadist community as a period of metamorphosis (much like the kind in the natural world). In the book, Davis hints that Maria's experience in the Labadist community may have influenced how she portrayed the metamorphic process in her famous entomological sketches.

So, the main themes of the book are the tenacity of the female spirit, the influence of religion on the female psyche, and the importance of a support structure in women's lives.

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