Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Flash-Flood of Feminist Fiction

Within the past two weeks or so, I read both Marilyn French's The Women's Room and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (Herland I finished in a day; it's very short and an easy read). Though they are about as different as two books could be --- Herland is a utopia, told from the point of view of the male explorers who discover the titular all-female enclave, while The Women's Room is realistic and quotidian, reflecting the everyday lives of a shifting constellation of women --- I still find that they cover a lot of the same ground.

Specifically, the ground they cover is the tissue of unquestioned assumptions dividing human life into discrete, barely-overlapping male and female spheres. In Herland, of course, the women do everything because there are no men, and have not been for generations (they reproduce by parthenogenesis), while in The Women's Room the life story of Mira, its protagonist, is periodically interrupted and subjected to feminist criticism by the group of women hearing it. Mira herself also realizes the injustice of some of the things in her pre-feminist life, though she does not analyze them deeply or fight them. The Herlanders are entirely innocent of conventional notions about men and women, and ask their male guests to explain them, which they can never do to the women's satisfaction.

Here are two passages, the first from The Women's Room and the second from Herland, that illustrate the way these two books handle the same themes:

Mira and Val left. Almost everyone was gone except for the inner circle and a few young women who were cleaning up.
"I really hate that Anton," Mira said.
"Yeah. You wouldn't be too happy at his being Dictator of the World."
"I wouldn't be happy at anyone's being Dictator of the World, but I'd rather have that guy Ben, or any bumbling idealist."
"I don't agree --- quite apart from Ben. Bumbling idealists invariably get overthrown by nonbumbling fascists. What I keep wondering is why we always have to choose between obnoxious alternatives. I mean, we live in moral schizophrenia: there are certain ways to behave at home, in town, in the nation, and entirely different ways of behaving politically. I mean, if the president of General Motors got treated at home the way he treats the world, he'd collapse. It's all because of the man-woman split, I'm convinced of it. They get women to act
humane and decent so they can sleep at night even though all day they're out screwing the world. If Anton were a little humane --- he really is bright, you know --- if he were female, say . . ."

"Right! It's his socialization that makes him so impossible."
"Oh, Val, that's just too fanatic. There are women who aren't humane, and I guess somewhere there are men who are. Hypothetically, at least."
"Sure. The point is that the roles are split on the male-female model. I'll bet you if you ever meet a humane guy, ten to one he'll be gay."

"We want so much to know --- you have the whole world to tell us of, and we have only our little land! And there are two of you --- the two sexes --- to love and help one another. It must be a rich and wonderful world. Tell us --- what is the work of the world, that men do --- which we have not here?"
"Oh, everything," Terry said grandly. "The men do everything, with us." He squared his broad shoulders and lifted his chest. "We do not allow our women to work. Women are loved --- idolized --- honored --- kept in the home to care for the children."
"What is 'the home'?" asked Somel a little wistfully.
But Zava begged: "Tell me first, do no women work, really?"
"Why, yes," Terry admitted. "Some have to, of the poorer sort."
"About how many --- in your country?"
"About seven or eight million," said Jeff, as mischievous as ever.

The same thing is happening in both of these passages --- the normal, "natural" state of affairs is being called into question by female characters --- but in the first passage the characters begin by discussing specific details of their personal lives (say, the odiousness of another character, Anton) and move gradually into wider social issues (Val relating Anton's odiousness to the public-private, male-female polarities), while in the second passage the female characters are asking how a society segregated by sex can work. What The Women's Room tries to uncover by excavating the countless frustrations, compromises, grievances and injustices shaping its characters' lives is the same thing Herland tries to expose as absurd in logical terms by having its male characters who act as spokesmen for Western civilization continually fail to answer the female characters' questions. The Women's Room seems to be operating more on the principle that the personal is political --- that systemic inequalities inevitably distort relations between members of different groups (races, sexes, classes etc.), while Herland focuses more on showing, via an imaginary alternative, the extent to which femininity is an artificial state. (It is a recurring complaint from Terry, the most overtly sexist of the three male characters in Herland, that the women of Herland are "unfeminine," even though they are physically beautiful).

Another difference between the two books is the structure (or lack thereof) of the narrative: Herland is meant to be the report of the three explorers (the two who return, that is), and as such spends a lot of time describing the workings of the women's society (though, as the narrator reminds us, leaving out concrete details of its location so that it may remain undisturbed). Much is left out for the explicit reason that it deviates too far from the story's intended purpose. There's a clearly defined story arc: the first chapter describes the men's involvement in an unrelated expedition, where they hear stories of a hidden country of women, and their decision to take a side trip to look for it. When they reach Herland's borders, they are taken captive and taught the country's language and history, that they might in turn teach the Herlanders about the other countries of the world. Most of the book is spent chronicling this cultural exchange, though sometimes the focus shifts to developing relationships between the three men and the three native girls they encountered on their initial foray into Herland. It ends when Terry is expelled from Herland for violence against a woman, and the narrator and his new wife choose to go with him. A sequel, With Her in Ourland (which I have not read) details Vandyck and Ellador's adventures in the wider world.

By contrast, The Women's Room has no structure at all, and its narrator frequently tells us the formlessness is deliberate:

One thing that makes art different from life is that in art things have a shape; they have beginnings, middles, and endings. Whereas in life, things just drift along. In life, somebody has a cold, and you treat it as insignificant, and they die. Or they have a heart attack, and you are sodden with grief until they recover to live for thirty petulant years, demanding you wait on them. ... In other words, in life one almost never has an emotion appropriate to an event. Either you don't know the event is occurring, or you don't know its significance. ... [Art] allows us to fix our emotions on events at the moment they occur, it permits a union of heart and mind and tongue and tear.

The narrator of The Women's Room is female, and a member of the group of friends the novel centers around, although she never plays a role in the story. She is very concerned with portraying all the characters fairly and completely; she apologizes to us for her sketchy rendering of Mira's husband Norm, telling us she never understood him, however hard she tried. Vandyck Jennings (narrator and protagonist of Herland) is not equally anguished over his own failure to render female characters in sufficient detail; for the most part he does not even attempt the task. "Descriptions aren't any good when it comes to women, and I was never good at descriptions anyhow," he tells us.

There were two books that Herland called to mind for me: Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Both of those sprang to my mind every time Terry harped on how "unfeminine" the Herlanders were, because both of those books (one a quasi-utopia, the other a thought-experiment with a story tacked on as an afterthought) involve worlds without gender polarities as we know them. In The Dispossessed, the protagonist comes from a moon colony that had gained independence from its terrestrial mother country several decades before the main action of the story. The colony is firmly anarcho-socialist, and roles are distributed as uniformly as they can be while still respecting individual strengths and weaknesses. Women do everything that men do, and dress in sturdy, functional clothes that do not differ from men's. Children are reared collectively, and sexual association is entirely voluntary, with no equivalent of marriage. Names are randomly generated by a computer, eliminating even that basis for gender distinction. So when the protagonist travels to the planet to collaborate with some of its physicists, he is confused and appalled when he first encounters a traditionally feminine woman. He suspects her of being a prostitute.

This passage in Herland details that sort of disorientation from the other end, when a man used to exaggerated polarization of the sexes tries to interact with women who are not:
I could see, just in snatches, of course, how [Terry's] suave and masterful approach seemed to irritate [the girls]; his too-intimate glances were vaguely resented, his compliments puzzled and annoyed. Sometimes a girl would flush, not with drooped eyelids and inviting timidity, but with anger and a quick lift of the head. Girl after girl turned on her heel and left him, till he had but a small ring of questioners, and they, visibly, were the least "girlish" of the lot.

The girls of Herland find Terry's performance of masculinity annoying because they aren't used to it, and have no corresponding scripts of their own to follow. It's clear to them that he's playing a role, and it annoys them that he can't just tell them what they want to know without all the rigmarole. Indeed, the quality of Herland's women that most impresses the narrator is their absolute, unflinching forthrightness. Much of his astonishment probably comes from the fact that femininity is designed to flatter, so a man accustomed to gender roles would find a direct, outspoken woman somewhat jarring, but I think he found them more direct in their speech even than the men of his own culture. The above passage explains how that might be: even though masculinity allows for a lot more "brutal honesty" and brusqueness than femininity does (the tending of other people's feelings being women's work), there is still a lot of social kabuki involved in upholding masculinity. You have to disguise your own ignorance, incompetence, uncertainty or fear, and you have to be mindful of your own position in relation to the other men in the room, and you have to maintain the right tone in your interactions with women. Open up to them too much, and you're gay or a sissy, but shun them entirely and you're not a real man, because one measure of manhood is one's ability to impress women. Interactions between a masculine man and a feminine woman are more like an elaborate ballet dance (albeit inverted; the woman supports the man in conversation and allows him to rise up and wax eloquent on whatever subject while she keeps the conversation going) in which the complementary roles play off one another than an exchange of information. Terry tries to give his customary virtuoso performance only to find that none of his would-be pupils are willing to cooperate.

To go back to The Women's Room briefly (because this post passed epic length a few paragraphs ago; I think this next idea is going to become its own post shortly), I was reminded forcefully throughout that novel of Virginia Woolf's idea in A Room of One's Own of what a "woman's sentence" would look like. In her imaginary future author's book, she places the sentence "Chloe liked Olivia," and singles this out as indicative of women's literature coming into its own. I took this to mean that a literature in which relationships between women are primary, and in which the development of those relationships is the focus of the book, is what women's literature will be once it is no longer primarily used for spotlighting the distortions of patriarchy. While The Women's Room spends a lot of time detailing those distortions, it is primarily about friendship between women. Chloe likes Olivia in The Women's Room, but she doesn't see her all that often because Chloe's husband got a promotion and decided to move them to a different suburb, and Chloe and Olivia both have small children and only one car, and gradually Olivia fades from Chloe's life altogether, eclipsed by Chloe's husband and kids' daily stream of wants and needs. The story is about Chloe and Olivia, but Chloe's and Olivia's lives, and most of the factors determining whether they see each other, are determined still by Mr. Chloe and Mr. Olivia.


Anonymous said...

Dear Lindsay,
Please take some time to answer some initial questions for my project, when and if you want. Here is the link

Thanks a lot,

Rebel Girl said...

Just found your blog. I loved this - I read all these long ago but now I want to go back to them again - and hey, summer's here! so I just might.


a.e. said...

Lindsay-thank you for looking at my blog. Your blog is very impressive--so much content! so many links! It will take me some time to read more of it, but I certainly enjoyed your review of The Women's Room by Marilyn French. I love The Dispossessed, too. I will write more on Quiverfull once I'm done--it's not an easy read--but it is really disturbing. Cheers!

Jha said...

Got here via your post at Shakesville's Marilyn French thread. Brilliant analysis! I definitely feel you on what you're saying about Herland's dynamics, and this makes me want to pick up The Women's Room, too.

And I KNEW there was a sequel to Herland! For some reason, I couldn't find any reference to it anywhere! Thanks for this post!

Phonaesthetica said...

Can't wait to sit down and read this post..have loved "The Woman's Rom" since I was 15, and yesterday bought a copy of Herland (which I haven't read yet).

Lindsay said...

@Phonaesthetica - Herland is fun; you'll probably really enjoy it.

I did not know about The Women's Room until I found this copy of it in a collection of old books from my grandma's house, all from the 1960s and '70s. (My mom and her two brothers amassed quite a countercultural library when they were going to college). But it has become a favorite of mine.