Form and Content

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The Women’s Room features a cover in which the word “Ladies’” is crossed out, renaming the “Ladies’ Room” toilet at Harvard University and, symbolically, challenging the rigid gender roles assigned to females in modern America. The title also comically evokes the title of one of Marilyn French’s feminist mentors, Virginia...

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The Women’s Room features a cover in which the word “Ladies’” is crossed out, renaming the “Ladies’ Room” toilet at Harvard University and, symbolically, challenging the rigid gender roles assigned to females in modern America. The title also comically evokes the title of one of Marilyn French’s feminist mentors, Virginia Woolf, whose earlier masterpiece A Room of One’s Own (1929) proclaimed women’s androgynous right to economic independence. Like Woolf, French creates an autobiographical voice that takes the reader on a mental journey that inquires into the theme “what women want.”

This mid-twentieth century Bildungsroman is a long novel which has been called shapeless and unplotted, but in fact its contents are carefully structured. In form, the novel consists of six units. The opening describes thirty-eight-year-old Mira hiding in the toilet and her new Harvard milieu, introducing the themes of gender relations, personal freedom, and men problems. The second section flashes back to her earlier life, motherhood, and frustrating friendships with suburban women. The third unit traces the vicissitudes of Mira’s marriage to Norm, ending with his request for a divorce. The fourth is a meditation on sin and civil rights that leads away from her suicide attempt and toward the “ideal” lover, Ben Voler. The fifth section follows the decline of her Harvard relationships, which are pried away from Mira. In the concluding epilogue, Mira reveals herself to be the autobiographical narrator of her life’s story and identifies herself as a solitary beach walker in Maine.

Another way of viewing the novel’s form is to see it as a comparison and contrast between two sociologically different American environments: the suburban enclave, whether for struggling young couples or middle-class success stories; and the academic environs of Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard University. However disparate on the surface, underneath these two distinctive “cultures” turn out to be the same place, one in which men and women are incompatible. The novel’s narrator and her friends passionately debate why this should be so. Why are women conditioned to be dependent upon men? How is it that women, in fact, grow away from men and become mothers whose lives revolve around their children? The Women’s Room explores women’s innocent disbelief in these problems, as well as men’s possessive power. Yet the interactions between the sexes, regardless of age or marital status, turn out in the novel to be as enervating for women at Harvard as they are in America’s gray suburbs.

French chose these themes and organizing devices partly from the validation that they receive from her own life experiences. French was divorced in 1957 and attended Hofstra College in the 1960’s and Harvard University in the 1970’s, experiences drawn upon for this novel. Its content has often been called polemical, but readers have widely accepted the contemporary validity of French’s characterizations of two cultures and her criticism of men’s androcentric worldview. Fiercely full of life, and refusing to compromise, Mira’s story is brilliantly accurate with its dialogue, characterizations, and knowledge of changing relationships between men and women over three decades and two generations.

This novel of ideas focuses on the grinding details of a woman’s daily life. Its complexity is drawn from a diverse number of characters; French’s experience as a Shakespeare scholar has taught her how to pattern an elaborated narrative with character clusters that reinforce thematic patterns. The novelist works to speak candidly to the reader, avoiding a sense of the narrator’s superiority over a reader but nevertheless challenging the reader to think about the philosophical issues involved in choosing selfhood rather than servitude. Thus the novel’s rhetorical strategy is to address the reader as an adult friend, in effect a member of the women’s gatherings—a participant in the community of women, its sufferings and celebrations.

Context

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Marilyn French calls The Women’s Room a “collective biography” of a large group of American citizens. Her goal was to break the mold of conventional women’s novels by presenting a pattern that weaves together and emphasizes the ordinariness of her suffering women characters. Her thesis is that women must accept life as a lonely chaos in which there is no foreseeable complementarity between men and women. In fact, French believes that women are more intimately bonded to their children than to men, that romance and lust are temporary conditions, and that candor on these issues is freeing.

Called a feminist classic, The Women’s Room draws upon French’s admiration for Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953). Her first novel provides a feminine perspective that rejects the positioning of women as the “other” or object in a world determined and controlled by men. Its explosive best-seller status is probably a consequence of its verisimilitude. The phenomenal popular success of The Women’s Room in 1977 was dependent on American women’s recognition of its central theme that women inadequately oppose men’s possessive power; they innately value nonjudgmental nurturance.

Many ardent feminists may have been puzzled by a polemical novel that criticizes not only men but women as well; they have not treated the book as a marching banner. Its endorsement of motherhood left it standing alone, neither a conventionally conservative nor a radical text. Later women writers, such as Alice Walker in The Color Purple (1982) or Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), borrowed French’s technique of developing a microcosm of American society and using it to illustrate gender disparities in power and their damning consequences for women. Sex segregation and the oppression of women have consequently become popular themes for women writers.

Preceded by such feminist thinkers as Woolf and Beauvoir, French is an anomaly, a distinguished academic scholar whose breakthrough best-seller brilliantly engages the reader who eagerly accepts her characters’ reactions to life. Brimming with energy, this novel fiercely refuses to compromise. Perhaps it straddles the ideologies of middle-American women and feminists because French’s depiction of women’s plight is universalized by her diverse examples and because she shows women’s problems with intimacy to be universal human experiences. There is no idealized woman-to-man bond or woman-to-woman bond in The Women’s Room; rather, French proposes that women’s dominant commitment is to rearing their children, a role that is the center of their lives. This is why Valerie’s abandonment of her daughter Chris is treated as a tragedy in the novel. It also illustrates how French proposes to use her fiction to clarify human values of the past such as motherhood, working within accepted moral traditions to stretch readers’ moral sense by reminding them about how the past continues to shape modern lives.

Social Concerns

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The Women's Room powerfully communicates the experience in society of women who have come of age since the Second World War. The central character went hopefully to college in the late 1940s, believing in her own intelligence, potential, and opportunity. In the 1950s, she and her friends settled into the suburban life of domesticity and motherhood that became a national ideal, and avoided speaking about the subtle undercurrents of dissatisfaction that Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, would characterize as "the problem that has no name." Buffeted in the 1960s by pressure and change — nervous breakdown, divorce, alcoholism, shifting social roles, sexual freedom — some emerged with the energy to seek new goals, new training, and independent professional existences, but discovered that real independence could be gained only at the cost of loneliness. The next generation of women — those who came of age in the 1960s and confidently used the opportunities open to them — learn that men have not changed in the same ways that women have, and that their drive to achieve is apparently in insoluble conflict with establishing and maintaining a loving and supportive marriage.

The overarching social concern — women, and women's space in society — is universalized through the technique of the group protagonist. The single story that is woman's story speaks through the lives of many women over the course of thirty years. Individual problems grow from structural flaws in society. Among the issues are: poverty (even upper-middleclass married women are only one man away from welfare), birth control, the male retreat from marriage as "self" becomes socially acceptable and "duty" declines, the lack of social supports or resources to cope with a disturbed child, men who "outgrow" the women who dropped out and went to work in order to support them through law or medical school, and the constant emotional drain, diffusion of energy, and pressures which are created by total responsibility within a nuclear family and which lead women to feel inadequate as mothers.

Bibliography

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Brown, Ellen. “Between the Medusa and the Abyss: Reading Jane Eyre, Reading Myself.” In The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, edited by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy-Zauhar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. Various essays explore the feminist approach and biographical connections in French’s work.

Clarke, Betsy. The Turmoils of Gender: Marilyn French and Mary Gordon. Rockford, Ill.: Rockford Institute, 1982. An interesting discussion by two modern feminist writers about their respective literary treatments of what some have called “the longest war.”

Current Biography. “Marilyn French.” 53 (September, 1992): 10-14. Offers biographical background on French, as well a brief critiques of some of her works. Describes The Women’s Room as a dramatization of a woman’s search for herself in a society dominated by males.

French, Marilyn. “The Great Chain.” In The World of George Sand. New York: Greenwood, 1991. French does not specifically address issues in any of her novels; however, she examines the treatment of women in relationship to political ideologies portrayed in books of the past. Offers interesting insight into French’s feminist philosophy.

French, Marilyn. “The Masculine Mystique.” Literary Review 36 (Fall, 1992): 17-27. Complementing Betty Friedan’s analysis of women’s ambivalent power base in a female mystique, French considers the background of men’s power base. She addresses the question of why she does not focus her fiction upon male characters and explains why men’s unselfconscious, phallocentric worldview has its dangers.

French, Marilyn. Season in Hell: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1998. A moving account of French’s battle against esophageal cancer. Although this work does not address any of French’s works, it does offer insight into her tenacious character.

Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth. “The Madonna, The Women’s Room, and The Scarlet Letter.” College English 57 (1995): 410-425. Relates the treatment of women in these well-known novels to the theories of Sigmund Freud.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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The novel's narrative voice weaves readers into the group story. An authorial "I" speaks directly to readers as "you" and also includes them as fellow women in a conspiratorial "we." By the book's end it becomes clear that the "I" who narrates — and who walks alone on the New England beach at the beginning — has the same life history as the protagonist whose story she tells. The blending of names suggests not only "Mira" and "Marilyn" but also, through "mirror," the reader who sees her own story in the shared women's voices.

The form of The Women's Room replicates women's experience with its circularity, repetition, and grinding accumulation of daily detail. There is no tidy plot of cause, effect and consequence; any story may be interrupted by quarreling children or a hungry husband. Friends come and go because of divorce, changes in financial circumstances, or (later) the demands of graduate work, leaving questions and loose ends. As in life, there are very few moments of climax that make change immediately visible, and no permanent solutions short of death. The shapelessness and wearing exhaustion that led to complaints from some reviewers realistically emulate the texture of women's lives.

Most of the quasi-autobiographical novels about women and marriage published under the impetus of the women's movement during the 1960s and 1970s were centered on a single individual, often using a first-person narrator. Women's fiction, however, does have a tradition of using multiple protagonists, often for the purpose of suggesting that social forces are stronger than individual acts in shaping women's destiny. Two feminist examples from the twentieth century can be found in Mary McCarthy's The Group (1963) and Marge Piercy's Small Changes (1973).

Adaptations

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ABC's made-for-television movie adaptation of The Women's Room in September, 1980, which inevitably sweetened the book and weakened its message, featured Lee Remick as Mira, Colleen Dewhurst as Val, Patty Duke Astin as Lily and Tyne Daly as Adele. It was nominated for an Emmy award as the season's outstanding drama special.

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