Characters

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

Although Mira is the central figure — the one whose story links the threads together — the real protagonist is "women." The book's first half is devoted to the group of suburban friends and neighbors who share coffee (or wine) and support one another with fragments of conversation constantly interrupted...

(The entire section contains 1450 words.)

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Although Mira is the central figure — the one whose story links the threads together — the real protagonist is "women." The book's first half is devoted to the group of suburban friends and neighbors who share coffee (or wine) and support one another with fragments of conversation constantly interrupted by the demands of toddlers or the press of sudden household disaster. Bliss, Adele, Natalie, Samantha, Martha, and Lily demonstrate various problems such as alcoholism, nervous breakdown and desertion, but they are not characterized simply in terms of one problem apiece. Each is a fully rounded individual; indeed, it appears that any of the problems could have come to any one of them. The second half of the book introduces a new group — graduate students at Harvard in the late 1960s. Again, the women are memorable characters with a variety of social backgrounds, each of whom is capable of growth and change during the course of the story.

The male characters are much less fully realized: some reviewers called them stick figures. French's refusal to provide in-depth characterizations for the novel's males is, in fact, thematically significant. At mid-book the narrator, trying to describe the man Mira married, admits she knows almost nothing about him and is unable to imagine his thoughts. The gap between women and men is so great, and socialization has made their responses and outlooks so different, that no woman can grasp what actually goes on inside a man's skin. Furthermore, the white middle-class male may actually be a stick figure: a collection of postures, phrases, and attitudes imposed by the cultural demands that he suppress his individuality and feelings to maintain his social role.

The Characters

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French has populated her novel with many female characters whose experiences are similar; all the women’s stories concern male domination and corresponding female powerlessness. Mira, the protagonist and the narrator, tries to fit in with what is expected of her, but her intelligence and sensitivity rebel at the role of wife and mother that she has accepted. Her frustration results from the fact that her work is rendered valueless by her husband and, in a larger sense, by society, and therefore she herself has no worth. Her story is repeated throughout the novel in the lives of her friends both in the New Jersey suburbs and in Cambridge.

There is Adele, a Catholic with five children and pregnant with the sixth, who at thirty is haggard. She has put her husband through law school and now envies his elegance and his evenings with his clients and law partners. When he is at home, he is as demanding as one of her children, waiting for her to serve his martini and expecting his discarded tie to be picked up.

There is Samantha, whose husband loses his job and refuses to accept employment other than in sales, so Samantha becomes a typist. Her meager check barely covers the essentials for the family of four and cannot cover her husband’s debts. Eventually they divorce, but she is still responsible for his bills. She and her children move to a cheap apartment and spend a few months on welfare, but through her hard work, they survive.

There is Lily, who, because of her inability to fit the mold of the good housekeeper and wife, is committed to a mental institution. There is Martha, who is laughed at when she considers going to law school. The women struggle to keep their lives together, but the price is high: suicide, excessive drinking, nervous breakdowns, and ulcers.

When Mira moves to Cambridge, she is once more fortunate to find supportive women. Again, however, the same pattern of frustration caused by male oppression is repeated.

Isolde, Kyla, Clarissa, and Val establish an identity apart from the men in their lives, but they are scarred and, in the case of Val, destroyed. Val, strong, honest, and clear-sighted, is the backbone of the group, but her life is shattered when her daughter Chris, a student at the University of Chicago, is raped. Because of the crime and Chris’s subsequent treatment at the police station and later at the courthouse, Val realizes that she cannot prevent her daughter from becoming a victim in the male-dominated society. Therefore, Val refuses to collaborate with the enemy and joins the “lunatic fringe” of militant feminists. Eventually she is gunned down when she and five other women attempt to engineer a female prisoner’s escape.

The male characters in the novel are shallow and one-dimensional. They all treat women as inferior and do not take seriously their concerns. Norm, Mira’s husband, wants a wife to complement his lifestyle, to provide a finishing touch. Ben also comes to see Mira merely as an extension of his interests.

Characters Discussed

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Mira

Mira, a graduate student in the English department at Harvard who is the divorced mother of two sons. She is older than most of the other graduate students, having gone back to school at the age of thirty-eight, yet the younger women seem much more comfortable with themselves. It is not until she becomes part of a small circle of friends at Harvard that she begins to see her personal life in terms of feminist politics: Her consciousness is raised. From that perspective, she looks back at her earlier self with scorn. Although intelligent and a voracious reader, Mira accepted, almost without question, the limits put on her behavior and aspirations, first by her parents and later by her husband. Married to a wealthy man, living in a beautiful house, and dressed in lovely clothes, she considered herself successful until her husband asked her for a divorce. At Harvard, she makes friends who help her learn to trust herself and to challenge the limits others place on her.

Val

Val, a graduate student in social science at Harvard and the divorced mother of a daughter. A year or so older than Mira, Val is tall, big-boned, flamboyant, and fleshy. She is known for her collection of capes from around the world. She talks loudly and authoritatively. At times, it seems as if Val has transformed every one of her experiences into theory. Val is more politically involved than the others. Eventually, her politics force her to take an uncompromising stand on women’s rights, and she is killed as a result.

Isolde

Isolde, a graduate student in English at Harvard. She is a lesbian in her mid-twenties, tall, and very thin, with pale green eyes. She is central to the group, providing its source of creative energy. Iso is able to see the positive side of everyone. Mira and others often go to her when they need someone with whom to talk.

Ava

Ava, Isolde’s lover for four years. Very shy, tall, and willowy, Ava leaves Iso to study dance in New York City.

Clarissa

Clarissa, an English graduate student at Harvard in her early twenties. Reared by liberal and educated parents, happy, and content with herself, Clarissa seems to be the embodiment of that for which the others strive, yet clouds appear on her horizon: Her husband expects her to do all the housework even as she is studying for her doctoral orals.

Kyla Forrester

Kyla Forrester, an English graduate student at Harvard in her early twenties. She is short, with long, straight red hair, wide blue eyes, and an oval face. A perfectionist, she smokes incessantly when nervous. Her husband’s lack of support for her studies causes her to doubt herself, to drink too much, and to succumb to hysteria and weeping.

Christine (Chris) Truax

Christine (Chris) Truax, Val’s teenage daughter. She is very close to her mother. Chris’s rape and her harsh treatment by the police and the courts transform Val’s politics irrevocably.

Ben Voler

Ben Voler, Mira’s lover, an expert on the (fictional) African country Lianu. Ben is in his mid-thirties, with a dark complexion and a large, round face. He is extremely supportive of Mira’s work until he gets the opportunity to return to Lianu.

Tadziewski (Tad)

Tadziewski (Tad), Val’s lover. In his mid-twenties, Tad is fair, blue-eyed, gangly, and sensitive. He falls madly in love with Val. When she informs him that she will continue to have other lovers, he throws a hysterical jealous fit that ends the relationship.

Norm

Norm, Mira’s husband, a physician. He is handsome but unfeeling and shallow.

Martha

Martha, Mira’s friend during her years of marriage. Foulmouthed and refreshingly honest, Martha brags about her “built-in shit detector.” She has returned to college and intends to go to law school. When her affair with her French professor ends, she attempts suicide and is never the same afterward.

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