Women in Stories

I was planning to write my Weekend Editions post (I’m late, I know) about the novellas pictured above, Small Things Like These and Foster, both by Claire Keegan. Then I saw the film Women Talking and also read the novel by Miriam Toews that it’s based on. All these works concern patriarchy and violence toward women.

I procrastinated in writing because I always imagine the impatience of readers, friends, and acquaintances. Kathy, enough already about women!! We know how you feel!! Can’t you write (think, talk, read) about something else??

Then, on Saturday night, I saw the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Lon Chaney, at the Cleveland Cinematheque, after a few weeks of talking about the book with my husband, who was reading the novel. Thinking about how to write this post, my mind zoomed out to a larger view of the issues regarding abuse of women.

Small Things Like These concerns an Irish girls’ school and laundry where young women are exploited and abused. In Foster, a young girl is shipped off to a foster family by seemingly uncaring parents. She has no say in where she goes and how long she stays. (Both books are great.)

Women Talking grew out of an actual incident in which women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia were drugged and raped repeatedly over a period of years by their own male relatives and neighbors. Eventually, in 2009, men were arrested and convicted (though it’s not clear that the attacks have completely stopped). Toews in her novel and director/screenwriter Sarah Polley pick up the story after the arrests. In their fictional accounts, a small group of women gather to decide how to proceed. If the men come back, won’t the violence continue? How will they protect themselves and their daughters? What would forgiveness look like? Is forgiveness even an option? It’s an entire novel and an entire film of women talking.

I saw, of course, the common threads in these works, having to do with who has power and with how cultural conditioning over centuries has shaped our thinking (including women’s thinking). All these works concern power, who has it and how it is wielded.

My epiphany during Hunchback was to realize how integral such questions are to so much great literature and film. Victor Hugo makes sure that your sympathies lie with Quasimodo, the outcast seen as a monster by the world, and with Esmeralda, the powerless but generous girl he loves, who’s a mere object to the priest Claude Frollo and other men. Sure, the novel and film exhibit political incorrectness. Would we make a person with a disability as grotesque as Quasimodo today? Would we refer to Esmeralda as a gypsy and portray the Romani people as kidnappers? I hope not. But Victor Hugo’s heart is with the victimized and powerless. His Romantic imagination created these lowly characters to be the admirable and sympathetic ones.

So many examples came to mind. Like Hugo, Charles Dickens’s works inspire a love and appreciation for people at the bottom of the social ladder, who are frequently women. Same with Leo Tolstoy, whose compassion for Anna Karenina, for example, is heart-rending. (That these men may not have treated the women in their own lives with dignity is the topic of another post.)

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Shakespeare’s Portia and Miranda, Vergil’s Dido, Salinger’s Phoebe and Zooey, Dostoevsky’s Sonia, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Thelma and Louise. These are all strong women, or certainly sympathetic women. And, yes, I’m choosing male creators,* because I realize that this theme is a through line in Western literature, right alongside the misogyny. Artists’ imaginations can encompass experiences different from their own. Artists like composer John Adams, whom I wrote about here, recognize that the best stories, the most engaging and moving stories, concern people who struggle. Those people are frequently women.

What women’s stories have moved you? Please share in the comments.

*A woman, Callie Khouri, wrote the screenplay for Thelma and Louise, but Ridley Scott directed it.

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6 Responses to Women in Stories

  1. Kathy says:

    Sarah–Very interesting, Sarah. Maybe the tide is turning toward more and better roles for women?

  2. Sarah Becker says:

    I have noticed a lot of strong women characters in this year’s movie awards season. Siobhan (Kerry Condon) in Banshees goes her own way. The many women in Woman King make us all want to take martial arts classes. The three women in Everything Everywhere All At Once demonstrate great inner and outer strength. Mrs. Harris, who goes to Paris, has the power to change the future of the Dior company and its employees. Lydia Tar manages to fake out everyone before orchestrating her own demise. Lib (Florence Pugh) saves a girl’s life in The Wonder. (Why was this performance overlooked?)

    I’d like to see more such roles, some of them for older women as well (Curtis, Yeoh, Manville). Dare I have hope?

  3. Kathy says:

    Roger–My book group had a big brouhaha over Huckleberry Finn years ago. Most of us loved it or at least enjoyed it. One member essentially accused us all of racism, because we didn’t see (she thought) not only the “n” word but they way Jim was used as a foil in the practical joke at the end, which, I always acknowledge, is problematic. The argument continued into email exchanges after the meeting and essentially ended my friendship with this person. (Because I got tired of her calling my other friends racists.) I like that you point out Twain’s sympathy (and I would say respect also) for Jim. My friend Tricia had a memorable criterion, similar to yours. She asked if a white reader would be more or less racist after reading the novel. The answer seems pretty clearly to be less.

  4. Kathy says:

    Paula–I can see why you find her a good recommender!

  5. Paula Zinsmeister says:

    Kathy what a coincidence! I have both of those books by Claire Keegan on my dining room table right now… again recommended by my friend I mentioned to you today at Stone Oven. I read Small Things Like These and I am 1/2 way through Foster… love them both.

  6. Roger Talbott says:

    Thank you! I’ve been pondering the recent bowdlerization of Roald Dahl’s books. My feelings are mixed. As part of “woke” culture (pace Ron DeSantis), I get how words can hurt. But, I’m also aware that people writing fifty or one hundred fifty years ago, didn’t see things they way we do.
    I think your distinction between authors who were on the side of the oppressed vs. those who used common stereotypes to justify oppression is very helpful. Certainly Twain’s sympathies are with Jim no matter what Huck called him. I’m still not sure about Dahl’s Oompa-Loompas, but I think those aunts were the oppressors and deserved to get squashed.

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