At Indiana State University we have a general education literature course with variable themes. My theme for this semester is “The Plight of Women.” Back in the fall a male student emailed me and asked if it was all right for him to take it. “Dude,” I said. “I’m a dude too, and I’m teaching the blasted course. Don’t worry. It’s not a class on dude bashing.”
Indeed. It’s often a course in women bashing. And not by this dude, or that dude. No, it’s more of a woman on woman slugfest.
I’m not sure if there’s a more maligned character in American Literature these days than Edna Pontellier, heroine of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” When the novel was published in 1899 Chopin was crucified by critics. (Those who like to rip Oprah Winfrey and her book club might want to remember how professional critics treated Chopin and Melville and Hurston and Whitman and etc. before they cast stones. If history is any indication, those little Oprah Book Club stickers might mean more to what becomes the literary canon than anything coming out of the New York Times Book Review.) I think “The Awakening” is a great novel, both to teach and to simply read. Over the past decade or so, I’ve found it more and more difficult to convince many female students of the novel’s merits. Why? They hate Edna. Who is this woman, complaining about her life? She’s relatively wealthy, her husband doesn’t beat her, she’s got kids. What’s her problem? She’s living the American Dream. That should be enough. But no, she doesn’t want to be married. She wants a room of her own, a place to paint and to listen to Chopin. How selfish. For a room of her own she abandons her kids and drowns herself in the Gulf of Mexico. What a horrible person.
Nora, protagonist of “A Doll’s House,” gets the same response. Like Edna, she lives a comfortable life only to abandon it, along with her children, at story’s end. Many women in my class find the dumping of the kids the worst thing anyone could do. Edna is torn about it, too. Doesn’t stop her, but as her family doctor points out, the guilt is “nature’s way of securing mothers for the human race.”
More than twenty years ago, as a grad student, I taught composition at Wichita State. The department used a Dolphin Reader as a text. A couple times I assigned a Wendell Berry essay. I don’t remember which one, but like most of his stuff, it was about an appreciation of nature. Many of the females in the class found the essay incredibly offensive. One woman berated me for assigning it. Really? Wendell Berry? He’s as white bread as you can get. It wasn’t his admiration of nature that got to them. No. At one point in the essay he mentions his wife typed up his work. How dare he, the students argued. All this stuff about the wonders of nature and the dangers of technology, yet he turns around and forces his wife to type up and make presentable to potential publishers his crappy little essays and poems. What a dick, using his wife that way.
How things have changed.