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French, Marilyn: Title Commentary

MARILYN FRENCH: TITLE COMMENTARY

The Women's Room
The Bleeding Heart
Her Mother's Daughter

The Women's Room

AMANDA LOHREY (ESSAY DATE 1979)

SOURCE: Lohrey, Amanda. "The Liberated Heroine: New Varieties of Defeat?" Meanjin 38, no. 3 (1979): 294-304.

In the following excerpt, Lohrey examines the plot and themes of The Women's Room, and comments on Diana Trilling's assertion that feminist works should avoid "existential despair."

As Patricia Meyer Spacks has noted, novels by women writers are an area where we have not had time to develop aesthetic distance, and any collection of them will often do no more than exemplify the eclecticism of modern fiction. This is true if one is surveying the full range (Murdoch, Lessing, Spark, Oates et al) but within that wide spectrum the last decade has seen the emergence of a clearly recognisable genre of American women's fiction—the biographical novel of the single heroic female self. This is most often a rambling episodic ego-portrait with no revealing structure that moves on the one unvarying pulse of feeling through to an indifferent or 'liberating' end. The best of these is probably Lisa Alther's Kinflicks; notable among the rest are the Canadian Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, Erica Jong's How To Save Your Own Life, Francine du Plessix Gray's Lovers and Tyrants and Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of An Ex-Prom Queen.

Almost all the novels within the genre owe something to The Bell Jar. Like Plath's Esther Greenwood, the heroines grow up acutely aware of being different; they want to succeed by passive pleasing but are troubled by the perversion of self involved in the effort. Like Esther they exhibit a certain craziness in the process of escaping their female conditioning but significantly, a craziness which is seen in retrospect to be a form of 'real' sanity—Plath without the pathology. For contemporary women writers, if not armed with a polemical feminist ideology, are at the very least informed by a neo-feminist consciousness, one which enables them to externalise their rebellion in terms of breaking out rather than internalise it self-destructively by caving in. Despite this, the end result is often much the same for the modern heroine as for Dorothea Brooke or Isabel Archer, namely some form of defeat. The former may achieve an increase in her economic and psychological independence, but at a cost often of being placed beyond society and embracing the fate of a rootless eccentric (the fate that would presumably have settled upon Isabel Archer had she not decided to sublimate her sense of destiny in the guardianship of her stepdaughter). The limitations of the new writers, whether wry and comic like Alther or precious and narcissistic like Gray, are the limitations of self-knowledge. Very few offer more than the crudest social critique, and almost all lack a political vision: a narrowness of focus is reinforced by the general reliance on individualism as a philosophy and psychology as a method.

This is reflected in the current pre-occupation of feminist literary criticism with endings. The new consciousness, while it may dissolve barriers, does not of itself engender solutions. To critics in the liberal tradition, like the Trillings, neo-feminism does not in itself offer sufficient moral baggage to engage the ethical dilemmas which are the proper sphere of the novel. In her recent essay on 'The Liberated Heroine',1 Diana Trilling points to what she regards as the common failure of women writers to address themselves 'with courage' to the 'outcome of the heroine's choice'. In other words, self-knowledge for what? The goal of liberation is eventually reached, but what comes after? A survey in this article of the fates that recent writers bestow on their heroines suggests that the neo-feminist position tends to work itself out within one of four categories: existential pessimism; emotional optimism; stoic resignation or moral impasse.

The latest of the novels by American women writers to be published in Australia makes some attempt to confront the problem of 'what happens after?' before collapsing into the first of these categories, namely existential pessimism. The Women's Room by Marilyn French2 is a novel in two parts: the second part is a liberationist version of The Group, Harvard Class of '68; a chronicle of Val, campus activist and radical feminist; Isolde, lesbian scholar; Kyla, post-grad student married to MCP nuclear physicist; Clarissa, rich girl, and Mira, the author's surrogate who arrives at Harvard in middle-age via a tortuous route that occupies the first two-thirds of a very long book.

The first part is a slice-of-women's-life-in-suburbia treatment. It begins with Mira overdoing the flirting in the local soda-parlour, experiencing a near gang-bang and marrying the dour Norm, a medical student, out of fright. Two quick children follow on agonies of poverty and failed contraception, and Mira discovers mother love. When Norm graduates they move to a lower-middle-class neighbourhood and eventually to a more affluent one. Each change of scene brings a new group of friends, all of whose marital pains are relentlessly and pedestrianly catalogued. When each group has been 'done', we move onto the next in an unending parade of Harrys and Sandras and Toms and Geraldines in what begins to read like a long-running feminist soap-opera; a saga of domestic violence, childbirth and divorce, with every now and then a perfunctory political reference dropped (Joe McCarthy, Kennedy assassinations, My Lai) to remind us of our location in time and space. But the focus of real concern rarely strays from the domestic hearth with disaster piling on disaster, until the middle of the book where Mira and her best friend have what could be reasonably described as an exchange of attempted suicides. Such literary chutzpah is breathtaking.

ON THE SUBJECT OF…

THE WOMEN'S ROOM

Marilyn French's The Women's Room is the most fully realized of various attempts to work through the conflicts created by cultural expectations for women, and as in most feminist novels, feminism is a positive possibility within otherwise annihilating choices. French follows her protagonist Mira through girlhood, adolescence, marriage, life as a suburban housewife and mother, divorce, graduate school, and ultimately—and not optimistically—to a lonely existence as a junior-college instructor of English literature in a town isolated on the coast of Maine. This is not a happy ending, but Mira is introspective and intact at the novel's conclusion, no mean feat considering the extent to which her ostensibly "normal" and certainly conventional life experiences are represented in terms of their ability to inflict psychic and even physical damage, despite Mira's reasonably protected status as an open-minded, intelligent, middle-class, well-educated white woman.

Dever, Carolyn. "The Feminist Abject: Death and the Constitution of Theory." Studies in the Novel 32, no. 2 (summer 2000): 185-206.

Eventually the eminently undesirable and flatly characterised Norm leaves the withdrawn Mira for another woman, and she takes herself off to State College where she wins a scholarship to Harvard and Adele and Sandra are replaced by Val and Co. At Harvard Mira meets Ben, a research fellow, has satisfying sex for the first time, discovers she loves him but declines to follow him to Africa and have the child he wants. Her self-assertion and refusal to fall into old traps are not altogether rewarded. The bottom drops out of the academic market, and Mira ends up a teacher in a 'third-rate community college', a lonely and eccentric figure much given to walks along the beach and existential despair: '… in a way it doesn't matter whether you open doors or close them, you still end up in a box.'

The Women's Room has a readability and earnestness that qualify it as prime consciousness-raising material: as the blurb says 'This novel changes lives'. It's an easy book to lampoon in soap-opera terms—French herself refers to her characters as 'paper dolls'—but the whole adds up to a formidable moral polemic. Of moral subtlety it has little and of emotional resonance less. None of the men exists other than as a cardboard cutout, while the women are divided into doomed victims and opportunistic survivors. Moreover the madness, infidelity, child-bashing and wife-baiting are too routinely presented as if to say: let's not over-dramatise this; it happens every day; this is what it's really like in the kitchen, one damned horrific statistic after another. In her desire to spare us nothing French produces an effect of overkill: she presents too much too thinly, and the plight of any particular character is about as affecting as a statistical profile.

The interest of the novel lies in its ending. Mira is a character of great honesty, and this honesty exemplifies itself in the resolution of her fate: the world does not ignite because Mira asserts her independence, and in her walks on the beach and in her dreams there are hints of psychological terrors yet to come, reminding us of Lionel Trilling's injunction that the writer who writes on behalf of liberal values does his/her best work 'not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general righteousness' but in making clear that 'to act against social injustice is right and noble but to choose to do so does not settle all problems, but on the contrary generates new ones of an especially difficult sort.' The High Priestess of this point of view is of course Mary McCarthy, in whose novels there is only one moral virtue beyond sceptical appraisal and that is doubt itself—doubt and the absence of self-delusion. But Diana Trilling has presumably lost patience with this relatively modest requirement. Trilling complains that the novels of feminist writers are not 'life-giving' enough, end in too much existential despair and are in danger of 'adding to the dismays of the world we live in'. She scolds writers like Lessing and Alther (and by implication Didion and French) for becoming the new 'imperialists of the self', over-absorbed in 'the quest for freedom instead of rights within society', leaving us with heroines 'vagrant, without boundaries or purchase in life'. It is no longer sufficient to confront the pitfalls attendant on any change in moral position—it is incumbent upon the heroine to make the most of it.

Notes

  1. Diana Trilling, 'The Liberated Heroine', Times Literary Supplement, 13 October 1978.
  2. Marilyn French, The Women's Room (Harcourt-Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1978).

The Bleeding Heart

KAREN ALKALAY-GUT (REVIEW DATE FALL 1983)

SOURCE: Alkalay-Gut, Karen. "The 'Stirring Conversation': American Literature and The Bleeding Heart." Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal 9, no. 1 (fall 1983): 129-31.

In the following review, Alkalay-Gut examines the plot, structure, and characters in The Bleeding Heart, concluding that French's examination of gender roles in the novel is a "step in the right direction."

When Marilyn French's The Bleeding Heart was first reviewed, the major criticism levelled against it was that there was too much talking about issues. "Overly polemical," says Julia Klein of The New Republic.1 "… It is hard to believe it is her incessant rhetoric that instructs either her lover or her reader," says Rosellen Brown in The New York Times Book Review.2 Yet R. Z. Sheppard notes, at the conclusion of her review, "paradoxically much of the dialogue works … attentive male readers will discover why so many women are now saying 'Yes, yes' when there's 'No, no' in their eyes."3 And this is precisely the point of the endless conversations.

Conversations between men and women are rare and usually stilted in American Literature. When they exist, the point of the conversation is not to communicate information but to win a kind of power game. Hemingway's Lady Brett does not finish her sentences and thus forces others to interpret her intentions. Daisy Buchanan whispers so that men will have to lean toward her to hear her. Women win, not by convincing, but by using the situation of conversation to wield power.

But the game of power has lost its fascination to the man and woman in The Bleeding Heart. They have both learned that simply to win the battle of the sexes is to lose something more vital. Dolores Durer has "won" her freedom by leaving her weak, terrorizing husband, Anthony, and manipulating him into granting her a divorce. But she has lost because his subsequent suicide remains with her, and the children, marked by her ex-husband, are a constant memory and source of guilt. Victor Morrissey has won a passive wife. His infidelities drive her to smash her car into a wall and lose her legs. The plastic surgeons redo her maimed face, and his mistress points out:

Oh, how nice. You have what you always wanted! A woman with a child's face and a child's dependency. You don't have to worry about her running around because she's numb, and you don't have to worry about her running away because she has no legs! She's utterly housebound, utterly subject, and utterly passive. Just what you wanted! How nice to get what you want. Just what you deserve!4

Although he belongs to a society in which victory is success, the highest value, he has of course not won: the passive-aggressive situation of guilt his wife inflicts upon him for causing her accident controls him even though he is now free to be a bachelor in form and a married man in name.

Dolores is caught in her suffering and Victor in his victory. This use of symbolic names, criticized by reviewers as a "heavy handed reminder"5 is quite deliberate: the characters are caught in the stereotypes of their self-images. And they need each other to begin to break out of these stereotypes. Gradually, over the year granted to them in the book, Victor and Dolores reveal themselves, through intensive discussions, in the full horror of the stereotypes they have fulfilled. Both learn about themselves and the other as they allow themselves to react and mirror past tragedies. Having lost the game of power, they both come to realize that the stereotypes of their names—the woman as long suffering, the man as ruler—have to be changed before a more fruitful conception of human relationships can be conceived.

These roles cannot merely be rejected: Dolores tells her daughter Elspeth she has quit as a mother, but when Elspeth kills herself almost immediately after this scene, perhaps partly as a result of her mother's rejection (not of Elspeth, but of motherhood), Dolores discovers she still has the role of mother in her, even though her daughter is dead. And it is this role of mother that is the most deeply engrained and the most painful of all. These roles cannot be denied or rejected, but they may be able to be transformed.

Throughout the endless conversations there is a constant attempt on both sides to see and enable to see the stereotyped roles for what they are, and perhaps, to transcend them through mutual understanding. For the couple does not reject each other for having committed such atrocities on people who are not unlike themselves. Dolores understands Edith, Victor's wife, and identifies with her. Victor can help to explain Anthony, Dolores' ex-husband, in a way she has not conceived because she could not have understood the pressures of being a husband, a man, a father. So both are victims in the other's story of suffering. Had they married twenty years ago, they would have done similar things to each other as they had done to their spouses. When they come to understand the extent to which both of them are locked into their social stereotypes, these crimes are almost forgivable.

Victor wants to leave his wife and go with Dolores at the end. But, she feels, only by "breaking her legs," by curbing her personality, can he succeed. Still locked in his masculine personality, he does not ask her, but tells her:

I've decided … I'm going to leave Edith … I know you insist on keeping a place of your own. I won't try to move in with you. I can't anyway, I have to be in New York. But it's only a forty-five minute plane ride between cities, and we can spend weekends together.…

(p. 364)

She rejects this offer because he has simply not gone far enough. He maintains the position of the conquering male, even while his decision is a dependent one—dependent on Dolores. Although Dolores has learned to incorporate both masculine and feminine understanding, Victor has remained primarily masculine. "What I want, Victor," she tells him, "is to change the world, what do you think? To make it a place … where maybe even men will join the women because they will see that woman's way of thinking is more decent, more humane, and in the long run, Victor, more likely to preserve the human race." (p. 309) The author agrees. In an interview, Marilyn French states:

I don't want to be like men. Women still are full of the old, traditional female virtues. They cook you a pot of soup. They do the serving. They try to make you feel better. They create the felicities of life. These things are important, essential, and I don't want women to give them up. I want men to learn them. I want to feminize the world.6

And yet, although Dolores rejects Victor, and refuses to commit herself to any relationship that is not entirely free on both sides, the connection between the two does not end. The book concludes with the feeling of joy Dolores feels in Victor's presence, and the hope, faint but real, that this year of true conversation has had enormous benefits, and that some solution may be found.

All of us, round plump children, long skinny children, brown and yellow and pale and pink and red and chocolate, all born with the cancer inside, tearing around from clinic to clinic, seeking diagnosis, cure.

(p. 374)

A review of The Bleeding Heart in Ms. complains that women today want some kind of guideline for modern heterosexual relationships, "… how (and how much, and when, and why) to relate to the sort of man one might describe as Duke Charming."7 Whileapleatolearnhowto live life from literature is absurd, it is clear that—for literature, at least—a cure, or a progressive diagnosis, is here in The Bleeding Heart. Certainly the attempt to break out of the standard forms of human relationships in literature is a step in the right direction.

Notes

  1. (April 5, 1980).
  2. (March 16, 1980), p. 9.
  3. "Anguish Artist," Time (March 17, 1980), p. 92.
  4. Marilyn French, The Bleeding Heart (New York: Summit Books, 1980), p. 243. All succeeding quotations from this work refer to this text.
  5. Time (March 17, 1980), p. 92.
  6. New York Times Book Review (March 16, 1980), p. 9.
  7. Lindsey Van Gelder, "Romance Reconsidered," Ms. (May, 1980), p. 28.

Her Mother's Daughter

KATHERINE PAYANT (REVIEW DATE 1992)

SOURCE: Payant, Katherine. "Mothers and Daughters in Recent Fiction by Women." Philological Papers 38 (1992): 212-25.

In the following excerpt, Payant discusses the plot and characterizations in Her Mother's Daughter, noting differences between this book and The Women's Room.

In the 1970s the new feminist movement affected women's novels in a number of ways, but perhaps the most obvious influence was the predominance of the bildungsroman—the novel of development tracing a protagonist struggling for individuation in patriarchy. These novels, written by white middle-class women who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, recounted the heroine's oppression in childhood, adolescence, marriage, and motherhood. They dealt with restrictions on women in all areas of American life—the double standard, stereotyping of women in the media, limitations on women's reproductive freedom, educational and career barriers faced by women, and above all, the mistreatment of women by men in love and marriage.

Although generalizations are often risky, these novels seemed to closely fit this description. Examples include Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973), Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1975), Francine du Plessix Gray's Lovers and Tyrants (1976), Marge Piercy's Small Changes (1972), and perhaps the angriest of all, Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1977). Though these feminist novels differed in the amount of overt politics and tone (some were satiric and others somber), in each the author protested societal restrictions faced by women. Reading such a novel was a crash course in consciousness raising, and the writer's anger could generate anger in the reader against patriarchy in general and the men in her life in particular.

In their content "First Wave" feminist novels seemed to reflect the general thrust and tone of the women's movement during these years. These were the years of "naming the oppressor," of tracing misogyny in male literature, of documenting examples of oppression of women in the work-place and throughout American history, and of debunking Freudian thought, which said that women's primary function is to bear and nurture the next generation. So, it was natural that fiction writers, whether they were political activists or only influenced by feminist ideas, would concentrate on "naming the oppressor"1 as well.

In the 1980s, however, though women writers have continued to reflect feminist themes, those themes have changed, one obvious difference being a turning away from women's oppression in patriarchy. Instead, writers have reflected cultural feminist attitudes, an approach stressing the strengths and values of female culture, what women can offer patriarchal society and each other, with the ultimate goal of ending patriarchy.2 Favorite topics have been themes such as female friendship—the gifts women give each other—thus the enormous popularity of Alice Walker's The Color Purple in the 1980s. Though this novel certainly portrayed the oppression of women the dominant theme was the love and support women offer other women.

One popular subject in 1980s fiction unexplored in earlier decades is the experience of motherhood and the relationship of mothers to their children, especially their daughters. Often these two related themes can be found within the same novel. Novels dealing with motherhood reflect maternalist feminist attitudes, a school of thought exploring and elevating woman's maternal function. Essentially, the maternalists, who include a founding mother of American feminism, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Adrienne Rich in our own times, believe that motherhood makes women better people. Through nurturing small children the mother, unlike the father, is forced to extend herself beyond her own ego and thus develops compassion and skill in relating to those outside herself.3

In the 1980s Marilyn French has explored the effects of motherhood and mother-daughter relations in Her Mother's Daughter (1987). In this story of three generations of American women, the protagonist is Anastasia, a liberated woman photographer of the eighties who, in her fifties, is still seeking approval and a closer relationship with her mother Belle. Belle is the daughter of Polish immigrant Frances, a poor and abused wife of a tyrannical husband. Upon her husband's death, Frances had to relinquish several of her children to foster care, and because of guilt, sorrow, and overwork is never able to nurture Belle enough.

Raised in poverty, Belle vows to give Anastasia everything she never had—music lessons, a comfortable home, and beautiful clothes. But, because of her own starved heart, she never shows her daughter the love and approval the child and woman desperately longs for. A bitter, unhappy woman, Belle sacrifices herself physically for her children's comfort but neglects their emotional nurturing. French uses the metaphor of the "midge mother," an insect whose body is sucked dry by her offspring (12). By the time her children are grown, Belle has indeed been sucked dry, but her children have not really been nourished. In this treatment of the effects of the lack of nurturing, French demonstrates the daunting power of a mother in a nuclear family, held responsible by society, herself, and her children themselves for their psychological security.

Throughout the novel, French emphasizes the primal power of the mother bond. For example, Anastasia watches her sleeping children:

Arden with her eyes open just a crack, so you couldn't be sure she was sleeping, and Billy with his thumb in his mouth—clear through until he was ten years old. They would be pink and sweet-smelling from their baths and their sweat, and warm with sleep, and my heart would roll over as I looked at them and often I'd kneel down by the side of the bed and lay my face on their cheeks.…4

Although she is powerfully drawn to her children, Anastasia realizes this primal tie can be women's ruin if they allow themselves to be consumed by it, as society has said they should. On the other hand, it is women's greatest source of strength, perhaps, as the maternalists say, what makes women morally superior to men. Says Anastasia, "women are more sensitive, more fun—all the things you have to be to raise kids …" (565).

Though Anastasia acknowledges the pleasures and power of motherhood, she vows never to be a "midge mother" like Belle. She will have a career, a life of her own, and she does, an exciting career as a free-lance photographer that takes her all over the world. As a result, her own daughter Arden resents Anastasia's career because she does not stay home like the other fifties moms and provide milk and cookies after school. For a time in the 1960s, vowing she will be a better mother than Anastasia, Arden joins a primitive commune where women do traditional work. However, by the end of the novel, Arden and Anastasia are moving toward a closer relationship; frustrated by a life of full-time child care, Arden is beginning to understand Anastasia's need for her own life, and Anastasia understands Arden's temporary need to take the opposite tack. Sadly, this rapprochement seems impossible for Belle and Anastasia. French suggests that closeness is very difficult between the pre-feminist mothers and their post-feminist daughters.

Like other 1980s novelists, French frankly acknowledges women's occasional anger at their children for restricting their lives. The bitter Belle has almost totally repressed this anger, but the feminist Anastasia recognizes it:

Mother love. There is supposed to be no room in it for coldness of heart, for a private cell for oneself, with doors that sometimes clank shut. And the more you love your children, the more shocked they are to discover that you possess a single strand of ambivalent—or negative—feeling.

Insatiable for this love we expect to be absolute, we cannot forgive its mere humanness.

(71-72)

The fact is that women do not always love their own children, and can even feel a murderous rage against them that can translate into abuse. Other feminist writers treating this subject include Mary Gordon, who in several of her novels discusses the new mother's resentment against this tiny creature who demands her whole existence, and Toni Morrison, who compassionately deals with child abuse in Tar Baby (1980). Morrison does not excuse such abuse but traces its roots to the mother's feeling of lack of control brought about by the child's intrusion into her life.

A number of feminist novelists in the 1980s suggested that woman's function of caregiver and nurturer, though sometimes dangerously limiting, can provide both gifts for the society by humanizing it, and for the woman as well. While the authors of the bildungsroman of the 1970s saw marriage and motherhood as bondage restricting female individuation, writers in the 1980s were more likely to view such relationships as vehicles for growth. In Her Mother's Daughter Anastasia explains:

I believed freedom was independence, needing no one, having your work and doing what you damn well wanted to do. And that this was what the heroic man—or woman—did, this was how they lived. And if you ended up lonely, then you lived with that. Because being with people was a compromise, a deference, a dependency.… That's what I felt. Until very recently.

(674)

In other words, we find ourselves in relationship. Near the end of the novel when Arden asks if she should stay with her husband with whom she is having problems, Anastasia replies, "I can only tell you what I know" (675). In recounting what she learned from her own marital troubles, Anastasia gives Arden the gift of her own experience and suggests that some dependency and compromise for those we love can be a source of a woman's meaning and strength. The difficult thing is not to end up like Belle, "a midge mother." This conclusion to Her Mother's Daughter seems markedly different from that of The Women's Room, whose heroine Mira refused to compromise, lived a heroic life, but ended up lonely and neurotic.…

The women's movement of the last twenty years has had profound effects on fiction by women, effects which are continuing to evolve. If the 1970s was the era of "naming the oppressor" and exploring male-female power struggles, the 1980s must be seen as the era of women together. Women writers have moved ever deeper into women's experience, telling painful and joyful truths about aspects of that experience which twenty years ago we might have considered insignificant. The most exciting part of this writing is the unfolding insights it continues to give women readers about themselves. Women writers are not only naming the oppressor, they are naming themselves, and as it has done since ancient times, this act of naming confers knowledge and power.

Notes

  1. Carol Ruth Berkin, "Clio in Search of Her Daughters/Women in Search of Their Past," in Major Problems in American Women's History, ed. Mary Beth Norton (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1989) 11.
  2. Josephine Donovan gives a good explanation of cultural feminism in ch. 2 of her book Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism (New York: Ungar, 1985).
  3. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford UP, 1986) 26-28.
  4. (New York: Summit, 1987) 92.

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