Thursday, April 30, 2009

Maidenhood vs. Motherhood vs. ... whatever other states a woman may inhabit =(

In this optical illusion - do you see a young woman or an old woman?

What happens to a girl when she becomes a wife and mother?

Something awful apparently... at least in the eyes of Frank Wheeler.

In keeping with my (hypo)thesis about Revolutionary Road - that "the book's characters seem to be reluctantly enduring the death of their idealism as they're bombarded with the realities of their lives" - it seems that Frank can't cope with his wife's diminishing maidenhood and dainty femininity.

As a younger man, one still frustrated at not having met the perfect "first-rate girl", Frank meets April Johnson, “the exceptionally first-rate girl whose shining hair and splendid legs had drawn him halfway across a roomful of strangers.” Later, after they're married with 2 children, Frank watches her on stage as “she moved with the shyly sensual grace of maidenhood; anyone happening to glance at Frank Wheeler, the round-faced, intelligent-looking young man who sat biting his fist in the last row of the audience, would have said he looked more like her suitor than her husband.” Because husbands CLEARLY don't think of their wives that way - it's implicit and ingrained in the world of Revolutionary Road.

“Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (“Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?”), and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and chance into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own foul smell.”

When April's production fails miserably, Frank's image of her dissolves as well. She quickly degrades in his regard from a "shining vision of a girl" to a "graceless, suffering creature", a "gaunt constricted woman... homely". The "first-rate girl" is suddenly merely his wife and the mother of his two children - on stage in a terrible community theater troupe. Frank's stark dichotomy - this maiden vs. mother attitude is vile, but reading these sentiments at face value cheapens the book. It's easy, as a young female reader to be disgusted by this unfeeling binarism - but if I'd taken the easy route, I'd be missing Yates' larger intention.

There's a tone of resentment in the deflation of Frank's ideals of April - I think because in her commonness, in what he perceives as her failings, he sees his own reflected.

The standards to which she's held seem to be a bit rigid as well. She's described as being “a shade too heavy in the hips and thighs” after bearing two children and again as “a little too wide in the hips”. The interesting thing is that these assertions don't come from Frank or any other character in the story - they're the narrator's commentaries. But the narrator is not a character in the book - so to whom should these opinions be attributed? Obviously, they're meant to be ironic and illuminating - and they succeed.

But what does a woman become after she's far into motherhood? What if she's old and unmarried? What of her then?

Frank's own mother is described vaguely as "a pair of rimless spectacles, a hair net, and a timorous smear of lipstick.” Another older woman, Mrs. Givings is, as soon as she's characterized, immediately made ridiculous - her "cosmetics seemed always to have been applied in a frenzy of haste, of impatience to get the whole silly business over and done with, and she was constantly in motion, a trim, leather-skinned woman in her fifties...”.

Jane Austen, in all her infallibility, accurately portrays these female literary archetypes while allowing them to maintain some shred of humanity. Her Miss Bates, who was never asked to play the pianoforte (because who could think of homely, spinsterly, poor Miss Bates when Emma or Jane Fairfax were around?) still lives today in women like pop culture figure Susan Boyle. Austen takes the same ironic tone as Yates when she says that "it is only poverty that makes celibacy contemptible. A single woman of good fortune is always respectable." While ironic, both statements reflect the attitudes and opinions of the day.

In this optical illusion - do you see a young woman or an old woman?

This is all too "Virgin/Mother/Crone" for my taste.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post, i am truly very much impressed with the way you have been posting, keep posts like this coming, will be back again.

Nicole using Medela symphony these days.