French, Marilyn 1929–
French, Marilyn 1929–
PERSONAL: Born November 21, 1929, in New York, NY; daughter of E. Charles and Isabel (Hazz) Edwards; married Robert M. French, Jr. (a lawyer), June 4, 1950 (divorced, 1967); children: Jamie, Robert M. III. Education: Hofstra College (now University), B.A., 1951, M.A., 1964; Harvard University, Ph.D., 1972. Hobbies and other interests: Amateur musician; parties, cooking, travel.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Agent—Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency, 145 West 86th St., New York, NY 10024.
CAREER: Writer and lecturer. Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, instructor in English, 1964–68; College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, assistant professor of English, 1972–76; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Mellon Fellow in English, 1976–77. Artist-in-residence at Aspen Institute for Humanistic Study, 1972.
The Book As World: James Joyce's "Ulysses," Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1976, reprinted, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1993.
The Women's Room (novel), Summit Books (New York, NY), 1977, with an afterword by Susan Faludi, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1993.
The Bleeding Heart (novel), Summit Books (New York, NY), 1980.
Shakespeare's Division of Experience, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1981.
Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (essays), Summit Books (New York, NY), 1985.
Her Mother's Daughter (novel), Summit Books (New York, NY), 1987.
(Author of introduction) Edith Wharton, Summer, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
(Author of afterword) Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Now a Major Motion Picture Starring Lily Tomlin, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
The War against Women (nonfiction), Summit (New York, NY), 1992.
Our Father (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
My Summer with George, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
A Season in Hell: A Memoir, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, McArthur (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Also author of two unpublished novels. Contributor of articles and stories, sometimes under pseudonym Mara Solwoska, to journals, including Soundings and Ohio Review.
ADAPTATIONS: The Women's Room was produced a television movie, 1980.
SIDELIGHTS: Novelist, educator, and literary scholar Marilyn French is perhaps best known for her cogent synthesis of the late-twentieth-century feminist perspective. "My goal in life," she once asserted in an Inside Books interview with Ray Bennett, "is to change the entire social and economic structure of western civilization, to make it a feminist world." "Feminism isn't a question of what kind of genitals you possess," she explained, "it's a kind of moral view. It's what you think with your head and feel with your heart." French, whose own feminism was heightened by her life experiences, was married with children before she read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, a book thematically concerned with the importance of women not living through men. Considered by many to be the first text of the twentieth-century feminist movement, the book greatly impressed and influenced French, and soon thereafter she began to write short stories that expressed her own feelings and frustrations. Divorced in 1967, she earned a doctorate from Harvard through fellowships, and then launched an impressive academic career marked by the publication of her thesis, The Book As World: James Joyce's "Ulysses." In 1977, the success of French's explosive and provocative first novel The Women's Room, allowed her to pursue writing full-time. The work also became a major novel of the women's movement.
"I wanted to tell the story of what it is like to be a woman in our country in the middle of the twentieth century," French explained to a New York Times interviewer about The Women's Room. Calling it "a collective biography of a large group of American citizens," Anne Tyler described the novel's characters in the New York Times Book Review: "Expectant in the 40's, submissive in the 50's, enraged in the 60's, they … arrived in the 70's independent but somehow unstrung, not yet fully composed after all they've been through." The novel is about Mira, a submissive and repressed young woman whose conventional childhood prepares her for a traditional marriage that ends in divorce and leaves her liberated but alone. "The tone of the book is rather turgid, but exalted, almost religious," noted Anne Duchene in the Times Literary Supplement, "a huge jeremiad for a new kind of Fall, a whole new experience of pain and loss."
Writing about The Women's Room in the Washington Post Book Review, Brigitte Weeks contended that "the novel's basic thesis—that there is little or no foreseeable future for coexistence between men and women—is powerfully stated, but still invokes a lonely chaos repellent to most readers." Uncomfortable with what she perceives as the woman-as-victim perspective in The Women's Room, Sara Sanborn elaborated in Ms.: "My main objection is not that French writes about the sufferings of women; so have the best women writers. But the women of, say, George Eliot or Virginia Woolf, hampered as they are, live in the world of choice and consequence. They are implicated in their own fates, which gives them both interest and stature. The characters in this book glory in the condition which some men have ascribed to women: they are not responsible." In her interview with People magazine's Gail Jennes, French stated: "Books, movies, TV teach us false images of ourselves. We learn to expect fairy-tale lives. Ordinary women's daily lives—unlike men's—have not been the stuff of literature. I wanted to legitimate it and I purposely chose the most ordinary lives [for the characters in the novel]—not the worst cases…. I wanted to break the mold of conventional women's novels." However, in the New York Times Book Review, Rosellen Brown noted that The Women's Room "declared the independence of one victimized wife after another."
"French wonders not only if male-female love is possible, but whether it's ethical in the contemporary context," wrote Lindsey Van Gelder in a Ms. review of French's second novel, The Bleeding Heart. "How, in other words, does one reconcile one's hard-won feminist insights about the way the System works with one's longing to open one's heart completely to a man who, at the very least, benefits from an oppressive System buttressed, in part, by women's emotional vulnerability?" The Bleeding Heart centers on Dolores, a liberated professor of Renaissance literature, who is on leave and researching a new book at Oxford University when she meets Victor, an unhappily married father of four in England on business. Compromising her feminist principles by engaging in an impassioned but frustratingly combative affair with him, Dolores ultimately realizes that she cannot live with Victor without descending into predictably prescribed roles. Commenting in Newsweek that "French makes her point and touches lots of raw contemporary nerves," Jean Strouse queried, "What happens when nobody wants to be the wife?" According to Brown, The Bleeding Heart represents "an admirably honest admission of the human complications that arise after a few years of lonely integrity: What now? Must one wait for love until the world of power changes hands? Is there a difference between accommodation and compromise among lovers? Accommodation and surrender? How to spell out the terms of a partial affirmation?"
In the Village Voice, Laurie Stone observed the political thesis of The Bleeding Heart: "Although a feminist may love a man, she will ultimately have to reject him, since men axiomatically live by values inimical to women." Describing it as "a novel of love and despair in the seeming ruins of post-'60s angst and the ill-defined emotional territory of the '70s," Thomas Sanchez suggested in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the work "is less a novel of people and their fierce concerns for survival than a melodrama of symbols clothed in philosophical and political garb." Furthermore, Sanchez called The Bleeding Heart "maddening" in the sense that "French has mistaken politics for prose." But according to R.Z. Sheppard in Time, French softened her militancy in the work: "Her soul on ice, Marilyn French sounded like a feminist Eldridge Cleaver [in The Women's Room]. The Bleeding Heart suggests a slight thaw. Its core is a seemingly endless and inconclusive dialogue—SALT talks in the gender wars." And Nation contributor Andrea Freud Loewen-stein suggested that although The Bleeding Heart is "a depressed and depressing book," it is "not a destructive one." In the words of Alice Hoffman in the New York Times Book Review, "French continues to write about the inner lives of women with insight and intimacy. What she's given us this time is a page-turner with a heart."
French's novel Our Father depicts the troubled "family reunion" that occurs after a wealthy man, Stephen Upton, suffers a stroke, sparking a visit from his four estranged daughters—all of whom have different mothers. Each hoping to gain either money or acknowledgment from their father, the women initially compete and bicker. The daughters' discovery that they have all been the victims of incest during their childhood, however, becomes a source of bonding and mutual support. Reviews of the work have been mixed. Citing an element of flatness in French's characters and scenes, Georgia Jones-Davis in the Los Angeles Times Book Review commented: "French has written a polemic, not a novel…. [The work] is too preachy and badly written to count as literature and too static to be good mind candy." Maude McDaniel, reviewing the book for Chicago's Tribune Books, also found the author's prose style "pedestrian," but nevertheless argued that Our Father "should strike a chord with every woman who is willing to think honestly about the place of femaleness in the world." While noting that the novel lacks realism in terms of character and environmental detail, Meg Wolitzer of the New York Times Book Review also found the book fascinating: "Our Father is a big novel that is fueled by anger, revenge, and the possibilities of recovery," Wolitzer noted. "It is overly long and often wildly melodramatic, but somehow these failings also give it an odd power."
A criticism frequently leveled at French's fiction is that "her novels suffer from a knee-jerk feminist stereotype in which all men are at worst, brutal and, at best, insensitive," noted Susan Wood in the Washington Post Book World. Astonished at the bitterness and anger French expresses in The Women's Room and The Bleeding Heart, for instance, critics have cited the author's strident anti-male stance. For example, Libby Purves wrote in the London Times that The Women's Room is "a prolonged—largely autobiographical—yell of fury at the perversity of the male sex…. The men in the novel are drawn as malevolent stick figures, at best appallingly dull and at worst monsters." And referring in the Chicago Tribune Book World to a "persistently belligerent anti-male bias" in The Bleeding Heart, Alice Adams felt the novel's one-sided characterization only serves to disenfranchise many readers who might otherwise read and learn from French's literature. Richard Phillips commented in the Chicago Tribune that "to read one of her novels … means wincing through hundreds of pages of professed revulsion over the male species of human kind. Man means power, control, rage. Even the nice guys finish last. Men are bastards. Women suffer. It is a message written with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but one that, French argues, is only a mirror reflection of what men themselves are taught from birth: contempt for women." But, as French explained to Phillips, "Contempt for women is not an accident, it is not a by-product of our culture. It is the heart. The culture is founded on it. It is the essential central core; without it, the culture would fall apart."
"Just as feminists have identified and denounced misogyny in books written by men, it behooves us all to arraign those books which exude a destructive hatred of men," opined Suzanne Fields in the Detroit News. "Such feelings can infect and calcify in dangerous ways. To intersperse torrid sex scenes with tirades against men for the imagined crime of being men merely allows villains and victims to exchange places. The rules of the game, weighted as they are to create those villains and victims, go unchallenged." However, to those critics who have charged that French portrays male characters as "stick figures," "empty men," and "cardboard villains," French responded in the New York Times: "The men are there as the women see them and feel them—impediments in women's lives. That's the focus…. Aristotle managed to build a whole society without mentioning women once. Did anyone ever say: 'Are there women in (Joseph Conrad's) Nigger of the Narcissus?'"
Praising French's skill in eliciting response from her readers, Weeks declared that "as a polemic [The Women's Room] is brilliant, forcing the reader to accept the reactions of the women as the only possible ones." Not-ing that "the reader, a willing victim, becomes enmeshed in mixed feelings," Weeks observed that the novel "forces confrontations on the reader mercilessly." Although Weeks acknowledged the novel's flaws, she concluded that the novel is "full of life and passions that ring true as crystal. Its fierceness, its relentless refusal to compromise are as stirring as a marching song." Yet, as Van Gelder pointed out in Ms., despite the fact that it "is a book whose message is 'the lesson all women learn: men are the ultimate enemy,'" men do not seem to be "especially threatened by the book"; those who choose to read it probably have some degree of commitment to feminism in the first place. "The best compliment I can pay it is that I kept forgetting that it was fiction," remarked New York Times contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. "It seized me by my preconceptions and I kept struggling and arguing with its premises. Men can't be that bad, I kept wanting to shout at the narrator. There must be room for accommodation between the sexes that you've somehow overlooked. And the damnable thing is, she's right."
In Her Mother's Daughter, a forgiving look at motherhood, French writes about the maternal legacy bequeathed to daughters by examining four generations of an immigrant family through the experiences of its women. Anastasia, the narrator, attempts to overcome several generations of wrongs by living like a man, sexually free and artistically and commercially successful. Her success, however, is juxtaposed with the hardships and sufferings endured by the women before her, and her emancipation, according to Anne Summers in the Times Literary Supplement, "is shown to be more illusory than real; despite every conceivable change in outward forms, it is the older women's experience which imprints itself on her inner life." Reviewing the novel in Chicago's Tribune Books, Beverly Fields indicated that Her Mother's Daughter focuses on "the ways in which female submission to male society, with its accompanying suppression of rage, is passed like contagion from mother to daughter." Marie Olesen Urbanski observed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "the more educated or liberated the mother is, the more pervasive is her sense of a guilt from which there is no absolution…. Her Mother's Daughter celebrates mothers. It depicts the high price mothers pay for children who say they do not want, but who must have their sacrifices…. Has Mother's Day come at last?"
In other nonfiction works French seeks the origins of male dominance in society. In Shakespeare's Division of Experience, for example, she posits that the female's capacity to bear children has historically aligned her with nature and, consequently, under man's compulsion to exercise power over it. In the New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey H. Hartman described the subject of the book as "the relationship between political power and the 'division' of experience according to gender principles. It is a division that has proved disastrous for both sexes, she writes: To the male is attributed the ability to kill; to the female the ability to give birth; and around these extremes there cluster 'masculine' and 'feminine' qualities, embodied in types or roles that reinforce a schizoid culture and produce all sorts of fatal contradictions." Calling Shakespeare's Division of Experience "the finest piece of feminist criticism we have yet had," Laurence Lerner noted in the Times Literary Supplement that the author's "concern is not merely with Shakespeare." Recognizing that French "believes the identification of moral qualities with genders impoverishes and endangers our society," Lerner added that she thinks "every human experience should be reintegrated." Lerner continued that "whereas for Shakespeare the greatest threat may have lain in nature, it now lies in control; she therefore confesses an animus against 'the almost total dedication to masculine values that characterizes our culture.'"
Remarking that "French is intelligent, nothing if not ingenious, and obviously sincere," Anne Barton suggested in the New York Review of Books regarding Shakespeare's Division of Experience that "there is something very limiting … about the assumption upon which all her arguments are based." For example, Barton continued, "Although she does grudgingly admit from time to time that rationality, self-control, individualism, and 'permanencies' may have some little value, she is distrustful of 'civilization,' and of the life of the mind. She also leaves a major contradiction in her position unexplored. On the one hand, she indignantly denies that women are any 'closer to nature' than men…. On the other hand, it is not clear that the qualities she values, and according to which she would like to see life lived by both sexes, are all—in her terms—feminine." According to S. Schoenbaum in the Washington Post Book World, French "accepts what is after all common knowledge: that the gender principles aren't gender-specific—biological males can accommodate feminine values, and females aren't exempt from masculine power struggles. And, along with overlap, there exists the possibility for synthesis."
Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals, wrote Lawrence Stone in the New York Times Book Review, "is a passionate polemic about the way men have treated women over the past several millenniums." And according to Paul Robinson in the Washington Post Book World, "Nothing in her previous books … prepares one for the intellectual range and scholarly energy" of the work, "which is nothing less than a history of the world (from the cavewomen to the Sandinistas) seen through the critical prism of contemporary feminism." Mary Warnock explained in the Times Literary Supplement that French's "general thesis is that men, who have hitherto governed the world, have always sought power above all else, and, in the interests of power, have invented the system of patriarchy which dominates all Western art, philosophy, religion, and education. Above all it now dominates industry and politics."
Agreeing with French's thesis, Stone stated of Beyond Power: "The history of the treatment of women by men in the last 2,500 years of Western civilization is truly awful. One therefore has to sympathize with her passionate indignation and admire the single-minded zeal with which she has pursued her theory through the millenniums." Nevertheless, Stone found the book flawed. For instance, pointing to the "relentless cruelty and selfishness" anthropologists have discovered among some of the primitive societies French has perceived as utopian, Stone commented: "French's attempt to resuscitate the noble savage in feminist drag is not convincing. Moreover, worship of a female does not do much to affect the lot of women one way or the other." Observing that "she is a formidable woman to argue with," Purves wondered whether the patriarchal system, whether "strife, competition, rivalry, the concentration of power, and even war itself," is not responsible for even a few benefits to the world. French responded by explaining, "We are always told this. That commercial links and inventions and knowledge of other nations come from war, but who is to say that these things wouldn't have happened anyway? There is no way we can know how the world would have been without men's domination." Calling it "a brilliant study of power and control showing how those two related systems have affected the lives of men and women throughout human history," Richard Rhodes concluded in the Chicago Tribune Book World that "Beyond Power ranks high among the most important books of the decade."
French's The War against Women surveys the oppression of women on a global scale. Considering such activities as ritualized female genital mutilation in Africa and bride burning in India, along with economic disparities between women and men, French argues that women have become "increasingly disempowered, degraded, and subjugated" by patriarchal societies. Comparing the book with Susan Faludi's more popular feminist tract, Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women, Julie Wheelwright of the New Statesman found The War against Women simplistic in light of then-current developments in contemporary feminist thought. In particular, Wheelwright objected to French's insistence on the universal victimization and "moral superiority" of women. In contrast, Isabelle de Courtivron, writing in the New York Times Book Review, praised "French's chilling and well-documented research," noting the disturbing validity of many of her observations.
From Eve to Dawn traces the history of women in three volumes. As Marian Botsford Fraser explained in a review for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the book revisits Beyond Power: "Before there were patriarchal states, there were matrilineal societies; something equivalent to the Big Bang happened to the human race about 10,000 years ago; states and patriarchy resulted and changed profoundly the nature of all societies; understanding this history will enable the world to move beyond patriarchy, but not to matriarchy which would also be a bad thing. Matriarchy, in which women have power over men, has never existed, according to French." Fraser admired the author's "chutzpah" in writing the book, but found From Eve to Dawn "impossible to read except in short bursts, or by browsing." What it lacks, Fraser pointed out, is a "narrative, story-telling quality." "It is a fascinating cornucopia of historical tidbits and arcane detail," the critic concluded, citing "a half-page on the Tlingit of Alaska, a page on the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, an 'overview' of ancient Mesopotamia," and short examinations of the world's three major religions among the book's focus. "If you are satisfied with just a superficial graze … or can use the book as introductory … it has served [its] purpose," Fraser concluded.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 10, 1979, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 60, 1990.
Booklist, March 15, 1992; October 15, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1980; February 7, 1988.
Chicago Tribune Book World, March 9, 1980; June 23, 1985.
Detroit News, April 20, 1980.
Economist, March 21, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, April 24, 1992.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 6, 2002, Marian Botsford Fraser, review of From Eve to Dawn.
Ladies' Home Journal, October, 1987.
Library Journal, November 15, 1977; October 15, 1987; May l, 1992; November 15, 1993.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 4, 1980; April 19, 1981; August 25, 1985; October 18, 1987; February 27, 1994, p. 12.
Modern Language Review, January, 1979.
Ms., January, 1978; April, 1979; May, 1980; April, 1987; April, 1989; July-August, 1990; March-April, 1991.
Nation, January 30, 1988.
New Statesman, February 21, 1986; April 3, 1992, p. 44.
Newsweek, March 17, 1980; January 24, 1994, p. 66.
New York, October 12, 1987.
New York Review of Books, June 11, 1981.
New York Times, October 27, 1977; March 10, 1980; March 16, 1981.
New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1977; November 11, 1977; March 16, 1980; March 22, 1981; June 12, 1983; June 23, 1985; October 25, 1987; July 17, 1988; September 24, 1989; July 5, 1992, p. 8; January 16, 1994, p. 12.
Observer (London, England), January 26, 1986.
People, February 20, 1978; January 24, 1994.
Psychology Today, August, 1985.
Publishers Weekly, August 29, 1977; August 21, 1978; March 7, 1980; September 11, 1987; September 2, 1988; March 2, 1992; October 18, 1993.
Spectator, April 4, 1992, p. 39.
Time, March 17, 1980; July 29, 1985.
Times (London, England), March 18, 1982; January 22, 1986; October 15, 1987; October 19, 1987.
Times Literary Supplement, February 18, 1977; April 21, 1978; May 9, 1980; June 4, 1982; January 24, 1986; October 23, 1987; June 19, 1992, p. 3.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 11, 1987; January 2, 1994.
Village Voice, March 24, 1980.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Volume 54, number 2, 1978.
Washington Post, May 7, 1980.
Washington Post Book World, October 9, 1977; March 9, 1980; March 8, 1981; June 2, 1985; October 18, 1987.
Women's Review of Books, October, 1986; April, 1988.