Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Great Classic Women's Fiction

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I like to sprinkle some classic literature in our audiobook playlist - a way to introduce the kids to some books we may not have time to read together but can get through on our road trips. 


I saw this one when I requested My Antonia in 2021, and put it on the list. The set has four CDs, one for each of the authors, and each author is read by a different narrator. As such, the set feels a bit like four different books. What ties the stories together is that they are about women and their lives inside and out of marriages. 


Since there are only ten stories, I figure I can touch on each of them, along with the authors. 


Willa Cather


This is the reason I ran across this set of stories. I love Cather, so you can find a number of posts about her books on this blog. The kids enjoyed My Antonia quite a bit. 


That said, I think that the two stories in this collection are not her strongest works. I have never been a fan of “On the Divide,” and “The Garden Lodge” seemed a bit flat to me. 


So, what are they about? “On the Divide” is Cather’s first story to be published in a national magazine. But it was submitted by one of her professors without her consent, and had been “retouched.” I was unable to find an analysis of just what this guy changed, but I can confirm that the story lacks the nuance that her later works would. 


The basic idea is that there is the loner, Canute, who decides at age 40 to go get a wife. When the vapid and directionless Lena teases him, he takes her by force and bullies a priest into marrying them. She is, quite naturally, terrified. At least he doesn’t rape her, I guess. He sleeps outside in the snow, crying, after she rejects him. The story implies that she eventually decides to be his wife after all. 


“The Garden Lodge” is a contrast to this idea. Caroline is married, whether happily or not, to the wealthy businessman Howard. They seem to have a comfortable, but not passionate relationship at this point, a sexless middle age. Caroline’s zest for life went out after her brother committed suicide and her father got in hopeless debt. However, some sort of fling with a visiting tenor seems to have revived her. Did they have an affair? Or just bond platonically over the love of opera? It isn’t clear. When Howard decides to tear down the Garden Lodge (which was the site of the fling), she objects, then spends a sleepless night in the lodge revisiting her memories of the fling. When morning comes, she decides to go ahead and let the lodge be replaced with a summer house, symbolically allowing her memories of the tenor to be replaced with new ones. 


As I said, not my favorite Cather stories. Chris McGlasson did a good job on the narration, though. 


Kate Chopin


I feel like I read a Kate Chopin story for high school, although for the life of me I cannot remember which one. I do not think it was one of the four stories in this collection, although maybe I ran across “A Pair of Silk Stockings” somewhere? In any case, I think I missed a lot of what makes Chopin great back then. 


In any case, these four stories were excellent. Chopin was a master of seemingly reinforcing Victorian gender roles while undermining them. She doesn’t do it with preachiness, either, but with strong storytelling and a few devastating lines. 


“A Point at Issue” is one of her earliest stories, and takes an interesting approach. Charles and Eleanor are a newly married couple, intent on living in a modern and egalitarian manner. As part of this, they determine to leave feelings out of things, and act on pure rationality as much as possible. 


They honeymoon in France, then Charles returns to America, leaving Eleanor in Paris so she can learn French and otherwise attain a higher level of sophistication. While back in America, Charles becomes drawn to a teen girl, and accidentally mentions her in a letter, causing Eleanor to become jealous. 


At the end of the year, Charles returns to Paris, and is shocked to find that Eleanor seems to be giving priority to a handsome young Frenchman. As it turns out, Charles has no romantic interest in the young girl, and the Frenchman is an artist who is painting a portrait of Eleanor to go with the one of Charles. 


The knife twist in the story, though, is that Charles “comes to peace” with what has happened by deciding that Eleanor is, after all, only a woman, and a little jealousy is natural for her. Completely forgetting, as the author observes in the last sentence, his own pangs. 


“A Pair of Silk Stockings” is familiar enough. A woman (maybe a widow?) has come into some unexpected money - not a lot, but a little. After realizing that her entire life she has scrimped and pinched to provide for children, she decides to go ahead and indulge a little. The stockings are the start - she buys herself some actually nice clothes and shoes for the first time, and goes to see a movie and have a restaurant meal. The brilliance of Chopin’s writing is the way her protagonist slowly allows herself to enjoy something for herself, rather than always living for others. 


“The Story of an Hour” is a classic twist story. It also contains a controversial word omission in some editions. (You can read a bit about it on the Kate Chopin International Society website.) A woman receives word of her husband’s death in an accident. After some moments of grief, she finds to her horror that she feels….free. As the original line puts it: “There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself.” (Commonly omitted word emphasized.) The twist, of course, is that her husband shows up, alive. 


The final story by Chopin is “Desiree’s Baby.” This story is set before the Civil War, and draws on Chopin’s experience with the French Creole community in Louisiana. Desiree is the wife, whose parentage is unknown - she was abandoned by her parents. Her husband suddenly goes cold to her after they have a baby together, and she is unable to understand why. Until she sees her child next to the child of their slave woman - they look like siblings. And she realizes that her child shows African American traits. 


The shit really hits the fan over this, and Desiree takes her baby and disappears into the swamp, never to be seen again. The twist, though, isn’t that Desiree isn’t “pure” white - although that is likely true. Her husband is also part black - and he knows it. Rather than face up to his own truth, he punishes his wife. Oh, and the other kid is his too - he has been bonking the servant. Another truly devastating look at the double standard. That we listened to this one on our Allensworth trip was an interesting coincidence. 


Tamara Walters was the narrator, and I found her voice a bit grating. That may have just been me. 


Charlotte Perkins Gilman


Yep, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of the two Gilman stories in this collection. It is so well known that it seems pointless to further analyze it. You can view it as gothic horror, an account of postpartum depression (which the author experienced), a takedown of the misogynist approach to the medical and psychological needs of women, a feminist work, and a number of other interpretations. However it speaks to you, it is a brilliantly written story. I do wonder if it is wasted on high schoolers, though. 


Gilman herself admitted that she wrote the story as revenge against the doctor who prescribed her own stultifying rest cure. Apparently it was effective, as the doctor changed his mode of treatment. 


The other story, “Three Thanksgivings,” is one I had never heard of. It touches on common Gilman themes: the question of financial independence for women, the imbalance of power in a marriage, and economic servitude. 


The protagonist, Mrs. Morrison, is the widow of a clergyman, with two grown children. She wishes to continue to live in her own house - the house her father built, and in which she has spent most of her life. However, she owes a mortgage to Mr. Butts, and it will come due in two years. Mr. Butts wants to marry her, although it seems at this time of life that he envisions her more as an unpaid servant than a lover. Mrs. Morrison is determined to remain independent, despite kind (but condescending) offers from her children to move in with them. 


Mrs. Morrison has the idea to repurpose the house as a kind of meeting hall and event location, primarily for women’s clubs, and she makes a go of it. 


The three thanksgivings are central to the story. The first two she spends with a child, after a gloating visit from Mr. Butts. The third, she invites her children to visit her at home, and dramatically pays off the mortgage. 


The ending line is superb. 


"Come, come, Mr. Butts! Don't quarrel with good money. Let us part


And they parted.


…but presumably he is unwilling to be friends. Like most patriarchal men, they don’t enjoy losing their economic superiority, and the control that comes with it. While not as iconic perhaps as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a delicious story. 


Jan Ahders’ narration was good. 


Edith Wharton


I have read a couple of Wharton’s novels, but I don’t believe I have read any of her short stories. The two here were very different from each other, but each fit the theme of the collection.


“The Pelican” was named after the myth that pelicans will stab their own chests to draw blood to feed their chicks if other food is not available. In this story, Mrs. Amyot, abandoned by her husband, and with a small infant to feed, takes to lecturing to support herself.


While she is not actually educated, and does an objectively poor job of getting her facts straight, she has a good manner. And anyway, people come to the lectures to see and be seen, not to actually learn anything. 


The story goes on in time for probably three decades, at which point the unnamed male narrator runs into Mrs. Amyot. Her fortunes wax and wane along with public taste, but she learns to re-invent herself as needed. 


The denouncement of the story comes when Lancelot, now a grown man with a family and career of his own, finds out that his mother is still leaning on the story that “she lectures to support her son” and is horrified - he hasn’t needed her money in years. 


What becomes apparent at the end, of course, is that Mrs. Amyot actually wasn’t much of a martyr, but actually liked supporting herself in style. Which, well, wouldn’t we all? But as a woman, her only acceptable reason for her career was to support her child, never for her own gratification and lifestyle. 


This story is incredibly witty throughout. I laughed at a lot of the lines, and enjoyed the digs at society. 


The other story, “The Fullness of Life,” is an exploration of what it means to have a true soulmate. The unnamed wife dies, and finds herself in a sort of paradise. The angel informs her that, since she claims to have never lived in true fullness of life, she would have the chance now. Her main complaint is her husband, who seems nice enough, but they never really connected. He was uninterested in art and music and history like she was. And he kept slamming the door! 


She then meets this man, who seems to be that soulmate she wanted. They finish each other’s sentences, they fell the same things about art and music, and are indeed practically the same person. 


But she decides this apparent paradise cannot make her happy, and decides to wait for her imperfect husband to join her. 


This is an early story, and one wonders if the rather conservative ending would have been written later in life. It feels a bit cliched - and in that sense makes a perfect bookend to Cather’s “On the Divide” - another story that ends in a seeming submission of a woman to a man that cannot be bothered to understand her needs. 


But the real best part of the story is in the first part. In a most devastating line, she says she is “fond of her husband.” That’s pretty bleak praise. She also says that she feels she is a house, and her husband never bothered to actually explore the rooms. (One could also see this as a bit of a sexual metaphor.) So, ending notwithstanding (and honestly, who wants a soulmate so familiar that there is nothing to explore?), this analysis of the laziness that so many men have toward the inner lives of their wives is spot on. The ease of accepting someone who does the dirty work around the house, serves as a pretty ornament, without seeking that deeper connection has certainly been endemic to men in most societies. Feminism ultimately isn’t solely about the externalities - the economic, social, and political equality of women - but also about the very necessity of considering women to be fully human in every way, with inner lives equal to men, and equally worth exploring. 


Marni Webb narrated these stories. 


Overall, an interesting selection. I was most disappointed, ironically, by the Cather stories, as I know she can write better ones. It was a pleasure to discover some more Kate Chopin, as an adult rather than a teen. I love short stories as a genre, and always like discovering new ones.


It is vitally important that a diversity of voices and the stories they tell are part of our culture - and our education. While all four of these authors were white - and of a particular time in history - they represent a voice that still resonates today. These questions of what true equality means, not just in society, but in our intimate relationships, remain vitally important to our understanding of each other. 


No comments:

Post a Comment