Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 169

The novel’s central focus is on the powerlessness of women in twentieth century industrial society. Women have relinquished control over their own lives: “They give men the power to determine their identities, their value, to accept or reject them. They have no selves.” This male authority exists partly because women...

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The novel’s central focus is on the powerlessness of women in twentieth century industrial society. Women have relinquished control over their own lives: “They give men the power to determine their identities, their value, to accept or reject them. They have no selves.” This male authority exists partly because women do not challenge it. Chris does not fight her attacker, and Mira accepts Norm’s decrees. Male domination is also sustained through socialization, as shown in Mira’s childhood, and through institutions such as marriage, the law, and the Catholic Church. As Val argues, “The institutions get us all in the end. Nobody escapes.”

The novel suggests that women, in order to develop their own identities, must eschew relationships with men and rely instead on the support of other women. The novel does not, however, deny important elements in women’s experience. Child rearing, cooking, and decorating are valuable female activities. In addition, women’s efforts to create harmony in the family and in the community are lauded.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

The profound aloneness of a woman walking on a deserted beach frames the book with an image of the impossibility of achieving both personal independence and loving heterosexual companionship. The central theme is not simply that women are victimized by individual men, but that the chasm of incomprehension between women and men precludes any foreseeable future for coexistence so long as patriarchy is ingrained in the economic system, in underlying values so universal they remain unperceived, in the psychology that shapes the family, and in all social institutions.

Patriarchal values also compromise women's ability to support and sustain one another. The first group of suburban women, who had nourished each other in their shared experiences, breaks up over sexual competition: shaped by the attitudes of the 1940s and 1950s, they cannot imagine fulfillment except through attachment to a man. A brief vision of peace and harmony that includes both women and men arises in the graduate-student group of the late 1960s, but their community is forced apart by institutional pressures and by the social conditioning that keeps men from perceiving their own assumptions about the conditions of marriage. It is perfectly reasonable for Ben to crave a child of his own, but he can neither understand the consequences for Mira of having another baby just when her boys have reached college age or conceive that he might, for the sake of parenthood, temporarily postpone his own career plans or take primary responsibility for child care.

Another crucial scene, from a thematic standpoint, begins when Val explains her vision of a nurturing and equalitarian community of men and women of all ages which involves changes in living space, economic systems, and education. It is informed by Val's belief that people grow human by caring for one another. At the end of this scene, Val's daughter telephones for help because she has been raped. Val comes to understand that patriarchy also prevents women from performing adequately as mothers. Because women have no power to shape institutions, Val is unable to protect her daughter from what becomes virtually a second rape at the hands of police attitudes and a male-controlled legal system.

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