Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929

Marilyn French’s central intention is the stretching of readers’ moral sense by making them think about and examine the unpleasant aspects of men’s and women’s relationships. Her portrait of the enculturation of a typical American girl in the 1950’s is startling in terms of its protagonist’s ordinariness. Mira, the girl...

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Marilyn French’s central intention is the stretching of readers’ moral sense by making them think about and examine the unpleasant aspects of men’s and women’s relationships. Her portrait of the enculturation of a typical American girl in the 1950’s is startling in terms of its protagonist’s ordinariness. Mira, the girl who thinks the world will give her a beautiful view, is presented as an Everywoman who, like her many friends, suffers from America’s gender dynamics. As in such earlier protesting tales as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), French propels an anguished girl into an unhappy adulthood. French widens and deepens the theme, however, by her insistence on a broad span of time and a wide panorama that replicates the pattern of female suffering. Called mad, oversexed, undersexed, boring, or stupid, such women either refuse to submit and be destroyed by insensitive men or are driven “over the line.”

Yet French’s first novel is not written as an antimale polemic; the narrator repeatedly pauses in her narrative to mull over questions about men’s motivation and perceptions, how life must appear to them and hence the inevitability of their viewpoint. Mira herself is a producer of male “childflesh,” the mother of sons whom she cherishes and hopes to make into androgynous gentlemen. Unlike their father, who cannot “equate the act” of sex with feeling, Mira tries to teach her boys that it is possible to grow into more than their father, her friends’ husbands, or Barbie’s Ken, “clean-cut and polite and blank.” In fact, Mira is no reverse misogynist; she “distrusts generalized hatred” and faults Val for saying that “all men are the enemy” after she has been maddened by grief over her daughter’s rape, both literally and then by the patriarchal system. Mira’s more reasonable view is that men need emotional education; her long narrative insists that the American Dream must not “eradicate” women in order for them to become men’s possessions. It is the unquestioned political and economic gender system which must be changed so that men will cease being the thoughtlessly superior group automatically deferred to by subordinate women.

French’s novel galvanized readers in 1977 when the book was published. The Women’s Room has been called as fictionally influential as The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan’s study of domestic discontent. Against the background of a chaotic period in American history—the Civil Rights movement, assassinations, the Vietnam War, the peace movement, the Kent State shootings—French goes beyond other tales of women’s suffering. She draws readers because of her creation of a visionary women’s community, laid out against a philosophically argued background, that appeals to thoughtful analysis and humane justice. Rebutting the wide and common assumption that American women dislike one another, she presents a different reality: They need and enjoy one another’s support, but they often fail to live up to its ideal. Their “jiggling moments” of intense and complete human harmony may not be sustainable, but they are real. This is French’s vision of community within the novel—maintained inadequately in suburbia, sustained temporarily in the graduate school enclave, and meditated upon in the author’s seaside retreat at the novel’s conclusion. Nevertheless, the narrator’s commitment to “the dancing moments that were a person” is cultivated within a human community. Her learned mind assures the careful reader that much about men’s and women’s relationships fails because of historically shaped facts that have led the two sexes in America to become two incompatible cultures.

Though she never captures the secret of two human beings sharing “togetherness and separateness,” Mira’s refusal to meet men’s goal of “adjustment” to their role’s expectations leads her to analyze the problem in terms of women’s training to be fairy-tale princesses. Her Bildungsroman rejects the beautiful “but not true” fairyland of suburban married life and offers the Maine coastline as a better “symbol of what life is all about.” Women in the novel, such as Clarissa, dream of being Sleeping Beauty, Mummy and Daddy’s “little princess” for whom whatever is wanted will be whisked in by the “good fairy’s” wand. This character marries a Duke and is surely kissed, but it does not save her from the consequences of disempowerment. Mira learns that she and her various friends aren’t “happy children playing ring-around-the-rosy.”

As a corrective, the narrator cleverly suggests a rewriting of Virginia Woolf’s tale of Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own; this revision would show the creative Renaissance woman not being destroyed but marrying, becoming a mother, and surviving through the controls available in language. This is exactly what Mira herself does. She refuses to live by her mirror like the “queen in Snow White” and makes a commitment to “let the voices out,” to “write it all down” and make sense out of it. Thus the narrator demythicizes women’s lives, rejecting men’s savior role. Mira adds, “What prince is going to cut through brambles to reach me? Besides they are mostly spurious princes.” Mira still believes in the potential for a “corporation of the heart.” Having survived fifteen years of marriage, a soap-opera life of suburban loneliness, and even the role of being the “Old Wise Woman of Cambridge” at the end of the novel, the protagonist’s adult identity is based upon a recognition that no man—indeed, no person—can create one’s mental health, which must be a consequence “of lowered expectations.”

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