Iconography: Independent Women
We’re going to leave the 19th century soon, but not before we’ve covered a certain breed of independent woman literary icon. At a time when divorce was the height of scandal, Louise Mallard and Nora Helmer were literary characters who looked to a better life without their husbands. And they suffered terribly for it. Let’s explore the rise of representations of women learning to live their lives far from being under a man’s thumb.
Perhaps that’s a misrepresentation of what happens to Louise Mallard. She’s the main character in Kate Chopin’s haunting “The Story of an Hour” (1894). Chopin was born in 1850 in St Louis, Missouri, and was raised by her widowed mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. When her own husband died, Chopin began to write, most famously The Awakening, in order to support their children. “The Story of an Hour” is so sad and brilliant, and it has among the most apt first and last lines you’ll ever read. It’s all the more awful because I can’t help but think that Brently Mallard’s accident is based on the railway accident in which Chopin’s own father was killed.
Louise is told—very gently, as she has heart trouble—that her husband has died in an accident. She retires upstairs for a moment to herself, and is gripped with an intense joy: she loved her husband a great deal, but, in being free from marriage, she will now be able to spend the rest of her life in freedom, for herself. However, there has been a mistake, and Brently Mallard walks through the front door. "When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills." A brief, shining vision of what could be, and then Louise is the one to die. It’s terribly sad, as Louise only becomes properly alive just beforehand. In just 1009 words, Chopin runs the gamut of emotions; it’s really quite extraordinary.
Henrik Isben’s 1879 play, A Doll’s House, came at a time of rising feminist consciousness in Norway; a 1866 law had given women the right to work in any career. And it was perfect timing; Nora’s doorslam at the end of the play as she leaves her husband was termed “the slam that shook the world.” Nora Helmer lives a conventional housewifely life as her husband’s “doll.” Secretly, however, she is working to pay back money she owes to Krogstad, which she needed to fund a recooperative trip for her husband several years before. When Helmer finds out, his reaction at last reveals to Nora how hypocritical and selfish he is, and she leaves him.
As surprising as it was to portray a woman leaving her husband, that she left her children behind in order to do so was also quite the shock to audiences. Ibsen sets up his doll’s house as a microcosm of social, financial, and legal paradigms, and it works well enough for that, though I wonder what Nora’s fate would have been, and if her escape would have been possible, if she wasn’t very much of the middle class. Helmer is just plain creepy with his insistence on referring to his wife with the most diminuitive language possible. She has “existed to perform” for him, and now she’s going to “find out—which of us is right, society or me”. She’s heading for a lonely, difficult, and absolutely free life. It’s powerful stuff.
I like searching out these women, coming to their revelations that they’ve been trapped, that they can live their lives without being twisted into other people’s shapes. And it’s telling that I can relate so much to them with all this time between our contexts: women without husbands are still seen as odd, threatening, and unwomanly. Chopin’s and Ibsen’s work remains so prevalent in the popular imagination because, sadly, it’s quite as relevant as it was in the 19th century.
To finish, also on this theme, I want to recommend Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, The Age of Innocence. Set in 1870s New York, it’s about duty, family, and the terrible situation in which the divorced Countess Olenska finds herself. The 1993 film, directed by Martin Scorsese, is also something else.
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