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[275] The Women’s Room – Marilyn French

” Women are trying hard these days to get out from under the images that have been imposed on them. The difficulty is there is just enough truth in the images that to repudiate them often involves repudiating also part of what you really are. ” [iii, 18; 191]

Marilyn French cannot make it clearer, aside from the frequent anti-male polemics, that The Women’s Room is not just going to be a novel, but rather a history in itself. First published in 1977, the book must have been a ground-breaking in its cause: calling women to re-think and re-evaluate the rigid roles in life to which a male-dominating society has subjected them to. The novel takes place in suburban America of the 1950s, straight through the late 1960s, when, after the ebbing of McCarthyism, on the heels of losing two wars in Asia, and the rise of the civil rights movement, women’s liberation is the topic as well as the form of this novel.

You see her clothes, her sprayed helmet of hair, and you stop taking her seriously. Her appearance proclaims her respectability, which is to say she’s just like all other women who aren’t whores . . . Wife or whore, women are the most scorned class in America. You may hate niggers and PRs and geeks, but you’re little frightened of them. Women don’t get even the respect of fear. [i, 4; 8]

“The novel revolves around Mira and her two important stages of her life. Married at an early age she becomes a suburban doctor’s wife who is felled by the obdurate afflictions of their kind: the responsibilities and rules of marriage and motherhood, which lead to loneliness, self-doubt, shame, madness, divorce, poverty, and isolation. The housewives in her number all struggle with at least two of these vices. Although no doubt there must be happy (content) housewives at Mira’s time, French is meant to show how women in that generation were deprived of opportunities in educational, professional, social and economic life. To cap it all, they were too busy with housework to even think. “Survival is an art,” Mira reflects early on the book, and, of course, not everyone does survive, at least not as the self she might have been. A life free from what male centrality predisposes was not available.

What she discovered suddenly was that she wanted to pick her own life. It was a breathtaking revelation to her, and it terrified her, for she didn’t know how she was going to be able to do that. She recognized it for the shocking, divisive, arrogant reading of the social fabric that it was. [i, 10; 24]

The male desire that created law making women depending on men appears in men’s continuing adamant refusal to accept responsibility for raising children. Years after her divorce, while Mira’s husband provides for the two sons, but he hardly speaks to them. A changed woman, she still cares a great deal to reconnect with her two sons that, taking careful consideration not to make them feel awkward with her boyfriend. Although her need for self-realization pitches her into the unknown (forbidden) universe beyond family, she has not found her nirvana when she begins graduate studies in Harvard in 1968. But the deep communicativeness among her female friendships (despite the difference in age, personality, sexuality, and circumstances) creates a safe venue for intimate talking. The loyalty and supportiveness of the camaraderie make possible for each individual to reveal personal desires, aspirations, defeats, doubts, and hope.

It was in the late fall of 1968, and we didn’t know each other well as a group. We were striking around the edges of politeness, not yet sure enough of each other to let it go completely, but getting there. [i, 21; 52]

‘The problem,’ Mira began firmly, trying to hold at bay the wave of insanity she felt washing over her, ‘is that these women think too much about men. I mean, their men are everything to them. If the men think they’re attractive, they are; if they don’t, they’re not. They give men the power to determine their identities, their value, to accept or reject them. They have no selves.’ [iv, 5, 220]

One might not be sure how many lives this book has changed, but The Women’s Room has indubitably, probably for the first time in literary history with such eloquence, intensity, and audacity, questioned the traditionally accepted norms that are blindly accepted. After all, Mira, as well as her female companions, survive, in the sense of awakening their self and thinking, at terrible cost but with immeasurable gain.

465 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]