Female independence

The Babe with the Power: Rejecting Compromise

jane eyre

How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth. You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so...

As we grow from larvaceous little rolls of baby fat into semi-conscious, babbling beings, we learn many things about how to exist in the world. These lessons come from those around us, generally from those who have taken it upon themselves to ensure our survival, to a greater or lesser degree. These lessons are not always directly taught, but rather absorbed through experience. The luckiest among us learn, for example, how to give and receive things like empathy and compassion. We all learn the varietals of shame. Some of us learn to protect ourselves from a world that wants to view us a certain way. We learn to take what we want (entitlement/privilege) or to accept what we are “allotted” (meekness/humility) or, more commonly, to compromise (neutral, possibly).

Compromise is the idea that if two entities want non-complementary things, they must come to some kind of agreement–meet halfway. Long touted as a necessary skill to interacting and being a successful player in society, not all compromise is created equal. In fact, compromise is largely gendered and, if we have learned anything from the news of late, that which is gendered is so rarely equal.

If a man and a woman disagree on something, you can pretty much bet that the woman has been socialized to be more amenable to compromise than the man. Women have been compromising forever, making themselves smooth so others can move more easily over them. Children or a career? A partner or freedom? Though past iterations of feminism have claimed that we can have it all, most of us can’t and frankly, don’t want to. Compromise is fine, I think, when talking about where to eat lunch or go on vacation, but when it comes to life’s big decisions, to dreams and aspirations, I say, to hell with them. Take what’s yours. You are entitled.

In literature, compromise is often the end of a woman’s journey. When she lets go of some part of herself in order to fit more snugly into someone else’s idea of how their life should proceed, often in the guise of marriage, something is forfeited, something the man would never be asked to pawn. But not so Jane Eyre. Although her story ends in marriage, it is marriage on her own terms. There seems to be nothing ideal about her eventual reconciliation and marriage to a newly blind and one-handed Mr. Rochester, and yet she has remained true to herself and her integrity, and thus does she, in the end, triumph.

Throughout Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the eponymous heroine is anything but your average girl turned woman. She does not meekly bow her beribboned head in the face of slander and misplaced blame while in the house of her cruel aunt, nor does she tremble beguilingly when Mr. Rochester enfolds her in his arms and entreats her to stay with him, despite the fact that he tried to marry her without informing her that, not only was he already married, but was keeping his (certifiably) insane wife locked away in a room above Jane’s own. Jane maintains an iron grasp of what she believes to be good and true, on her sense of right and wrong, sacrificing superficial contentment for the furtherance of a deeper, more soul-saturating, though by no means guaranteed, happiness.

I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me–for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.

As a woman, the expectations Jane Eyre faced in her little world of 407 pages (in my edition) were varied, diverse, and deeply-embedded in the society in which she lived. Despite her extraordinary resilience and loyalty to her own integrity, these societal influences showed. She referred to her boss as Master. She almost, almost married St. John, the (in my opinion) slightly sociopathic wannabe missionary, just because 1) he asked, and 2) he cited the impossibility of an unmarried woman being allowed to do much good in the world. Yet her resolve held, and in the end led to the fulfillment of her desire to marry Mr. Rochester legally and honorably.

“Keep to common sense, St. John: you are verging on nonsense. You pretend to be shocked by what I have said. You are not really shocked: for, with your superior mind, you cannot be either so dull or so conceited as to misunderstand my meaning. I say again, I will be your curate, if you like, but never your wife.

The compromises routinely asked of today’s women are not so different, and are still largely ruled by the whims and behavior of men. Women want free and easy access to birth control and reproductive freedom, but those who claim to have our interests in mind preach abstinence and strip away our “alienable” rights, as Roxane Gay calls them, one by one. Women want to wear clothes that make them feel good, men take that as an opportunity to catcall, leer, or W.C.S. (worst-case scenario), rape. So the compromise is that women should wear more conservative clothing. By the way, #notallmen.

I admire Jane Eyre. She thrived in the face of insuperable obstacles, but we have come a long way and times have, in some ways, changed. She had no friends, no vehicle of voice with which to protest. She lived in such a small world, and that world has grown large. We, women, have choices and voices she could never have hoped for, and we need to take responsibility for them. We need to make what is alienable inalienable. The time for compromise is over. Our bodies are not board room tables over which compromises are made. We must show the same kind of integrity that Jane showed and keep the greater goal in mind. We must not be tempted by momentary appeasement to give up the game. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine knew the merit of not compromising, and she suffered for it. She was homeless and hungry and near death, yet she persevered. We would have pardoned her for giving in, but she never did. We need to show the same resilience. We need to acknowledge that when it comes to our bodies, our futures, the time for compromise has passed.

Though the world would have you believe otherwise, believe this, tell yourself this in moments of doubt:

I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.

 

The Awakening

The first time I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, I knew I was reading something special. I mean, in how many books about the Victorian age can you find a woman who  is brave enough to leave her stable, “traditional” family, in order to truly find out who she is? This book was written in a time when the feminist movement was little more than a dream deferred, a joke to be laughed about by men over cigars. When this book came out in 1899, people were so shocked that they banned it for decades. I have a sneaking feeling that, like the most ardent antagonists of things like gay marriage, those that were most outspoken about the scandal of The Awakening were also those who most identified with it, and who were most afraid of it.

Like I mentioned in my review of Fear of Flying, Edna Pontellier tries, and fails, to do what Isadora Wing accomplishes almost a century later. The husbands of the late 19th century had a much firmer hold on their wives, a hold supported by the entire society, and any woman who so much as dared to do anything seen as not entirely befitting a wife and mother, was ostracized completely. In most cases, wives were closer to possessions than companions, and Mr. Pontellier frequently thinks of his wife as one of many objects that he owns. “‘You are burnt beyond recognition,’ he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (3). Edna is aware that her husband thinks of her as property, and this knowledge is part of what drives her away, and into herself. “Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt; but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself” (106). Part of Edna’s “awakening” is her realization that she is more important to her than either her husband or her children. Although she somewhat admires the almost mother goddess-like figure of Madame Ratignolle, Edna finds that she feels no desire to be like her.

Madame Ratignolle is portrayed as the absolutely quintessential Victorian mother and wife, and is used as a stark contrast to Edna’s lackluster mothering skills. Everyone adores her, but no more than her husband and children. She is infallibly kind and nurturing, and cannot in the slightest understand the cause for Edna’s unhappiness. When Edna informs her that “she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one” (62), it is as if she and Madame Ratignolle no longer speak the same language. Even when Edna tries to clarify what she means, Madame Ratignolle completely misses her meaning. “I would give up the unessential, I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (62). What Edna is saying of course, is that she wouldn’t give up the part of her that makes her unique. She could never bring herself to sacrifice who and what she is for the benefit of her children. This makes her profoundly different from Madame Ratignolle and the rest of the “mother-women” of her time. In fact, throughout the book, Edna shows very little interest in her children, unless with a certain novelty, like a child with a toy which is only beloved when nearby. Edna can see no satisfaction in the way Madame Ratignolle lives, and envies her not at all.

So if Madame Ratignolle is the Victorian angel of motherhood, Mademoiselle Reisz is the epitome of a spinster: alone, unpleasant, and often a source of snide amusement among the circles of society. She is practically a caricature, with her fake hair adorned with fake violets, and her shabby top floor apartment. But she is a master piano player. It is this that I find interesting. Why does it seem, so often in literature, that a woman can be either an artist or a wife, but not successfully be both? Edna finds that she draws best when she is alone. Mademoiselle Reisz has only her piano to keep her company. Isadora Wing realizes in the end of Fear of Flying that she doesn’t need a man in order to be able to write. The men in her life seem to put down her writing as if, because she is a woman, it can be little more than a silly hobby, not to be taken seriously. What is it about artistic women that threaten the traditional bounds of marriage and conjugal happiness?

These two women are the extremes that Edna is presented with. And yet she is happy with neither. She only wants to pursue her own happiness, and the rest be damned. “…I don’t want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others…”(147). The uniqueness of Edna’s situation comes from the fact that she comes to realize that society is not ready for a woman like her, that there is no place for her. Even the man who caused her “awakening” isn’t brave enough to be with her in spite of society. He leaves her, thinking he is doing her a favor, that maybe since he caused her awakening, that he could also reverse it. He leaves her a note saying “I love you. Good-bye, because I love you.” He thereby makes her decision for her, it seems. If she can’t be happy with her family and she can’t be happy alone (since society will not allow her to be so), Edna decides on the only possibility left open to her, in her mind: suicide. In a way which suggests that even Edna was unaware of her own self-destructive plan, she goes back to the beach where the book began, and swims out to sea. This is important because her learning how to swim the summer before parallels her subsequent education on the art of being independent. She no longer needs the help of another to stay afloat. She swims further and further out, pushing the bounds of her strength just as she pushed the bounds of her role as  a woman, and then, when she can go no further and hasn’t the strength to return, the book ends.

In my college Women in Literature class, some people argued that she didn’t die in the end. I don’t see how you could interpret it any other way. She swam out further than she’d ever swam before, just like she ventured further into her own self and independence than ever before, and then simply gives up. For her, it is the easiest way.

Why do I love this book? Because for an American novel written by a woman in the 19th century, it is strong, unforgiving, and real. Chopin dared to portray a female protagonist in a way that was incendiary and unprecedented. Bravo, I say. The only thing she didn’t do? Include very many descriptions of food other than one word dishes like “fish” or “fowl.” I think I’ll have to exercise a certain level of improvisation this time. But it’s set in New Orleans, so I think it’s going to be great.