Camus once said that whoever despairs of the human condition is a coward, but whoever has hopes for it is a fool, and it's this existential dilemma that seems to be at the heart of The Women's Room . Women in the patriarchy have been made not born, but we're fools to hope for immediate escape from the social and psychological garbage that's piled up over the centuries, and we're cowards unless we try.
Not since The Second Sex , published almost 30 years ago, has any book so daringly examined the way the restrictions of society limit women's possibilities. Like Simone de Beauvoir, Marilyn French is a woman seeking transcendence, searching for a world where her genius may express itself as freely as a man's. But she, too, realizes that her grand destiny has been suppressed by a historical accident. She is so lost in the labyrinth of myths about women created by men that her possibilities as a free human being may never be really fulfilled.
Hegel believed that nothing could change that did not conform to the mythic patterns of the people and it is precisely this problem that both Beauvoir and French confront. How can women who came of age in a time that tells them they are passive, acceptive - indeed victims by nature - ever really be anything else?
French has examined the problem from the perspective of middle class America in the 1940s through 70s. Her central character, Mira, is intelligent and precocious - two qualities not generally admired in females of that generation. At 15 she respected only two people: her English teacher and Friedrich Nietzsche. But despite this auspicious beginning, Mira, who longs for excitement and adventure, is so stifled by her parents, teachers and the demands of the young men she knows, that she finally resigns herself to the conventional life of a safe, stable marriage.
To choose a husband is to choose a life, says Mira, and the end is not usually apocalyptic. You don't live happily ever after, but you do live... by dulling the mind and the senses and attuning yourself to waiting without insisting on precision about just what it is you are waiting for.
Mira ended up living the American Dream with a successful husband and two children in a large suburban house. The essence of her life became years spent finding places where string beans cost 2 cents less a pound, in figuring the most efficient way to wax the kitchen floor.
Mira would feel tremendously satisfied when she finished her morning's work... but she would rage at the boys for muddy footprints, finger marks on a clean wall, a blackened towel. They did not understand, she knew that. The cleanliness and order were her life. They had cost her everything.
But Mira escapes - not because of some enormous psychological breakthrough or an apocalyptic vision.
She was 36 years old... she was the perfect wife. She had done everything that magazines, television and newspapers told her she was expected to do and still he came home saying I want a divorce. She had followed the rules, but they had failed her.
So Mira headed for Harvard to work on her doctorate and establishes a new life in the psychedelic-political world of the late 60s. The ongoing suburban saga of uncontrollable children and inadequate husbands becomes sexist professors and violent rapists. But her new perspective shows Mira that the problem is not individual men, car pools and yellow wax build-up. These are just symptoms of the real enemy - society itself and the way it oppresses women.
Quality of thought and breadth of scope is what separates French's book from most of the other women's novels around. She has, I think, captured the collective sensibility of a whole generation of women without sacrificing the shock of recognition that comes from particular experience. She knows, first hand, the living hell that marriage and motherhood are for a gifted woman, and she is angry but not shrill, relentless in her refusal to compromise the bleakness of her vision yet never failing to convey her sense of regret.
I mistrust generalized hatred, says Mira, and one feels that about her creator. She's too intelligence to look only at the surface of things.
Ten years after her divorce, Marilyn French lives alone, walking the beach, believing that happiness is not a human possibility. She feels her life was thwarted precisely because she is a woman, and her pain is enormous. But even if happiness continues to elude, perhaps justice will not.
The Women's Room is an important book, one that will show many women that the real seeds of their discontent were not sown in themselves but in the society in which they were forced to live.