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Heroines

The article is based in part on one of the Ewing Lectures given by Mr. Kazin at U.C.L.A.

Henry James in an early travel note—“…a certain habitual assurance which is only a grace the more. She combines…all that is possible in the way of modesty with all that is delightful in the way of facility.” He said of her in The Ambassadors

…by a turn of hand she had somehow made their encounter a relation. And the relation profited by a mass of things that were not strictly in it or of it; by the very air in which they sat, by the high cold delicate room, by the world outside and the little plash in the court, by the First Empire and the relics in the stiff cabinets, by matters as far off as those and by others as near as the unbroken clasp of her hands in her lap and the look her expression had of being most natural when her eyes were most fixed.

George Eliot called her the frail vessel that carries the inestimable treasure of the world’s affection. Flaubert, in a lyric passage that characteristically violates his determination in Madame Bovary to show life as banal, says that

Once, during a thaw, the moisture was oozing out of the trees in the courtyard, the snow melting on the roofs of the outbuildings. She was on the threshold; she went to look for her parasol; she opened it. The parasol, of silk colored like a pigeon’s breast and pierced by the sunlight, lit up with shifting reflections the white skin of her face. She smiled beneath it at the damp heat, and the drops of water could be heard falling, one by one, upon the stretched silk.

Tolstoy described her as a round smiling woman whose very way of walking created a bond between people looking at her. Dostoevsky has her trying to take all the anguish of a murderer’s soul into her own. Dreiser has her say to the man who has been keeping her for years—

He said that if you married me you would only get ten thousand a year. That if you didn’t and still lived with me you would get nothing at all. If you would leave me, or I would leave you, you would get all of a million and a half. Don’t you think you had better leave me now?

Colette has her say—“One night I dreamt that I did not love, and that night, released from all bonds, I lay as though in a kind of soothing death.”

She” is not merely Anna or Natasha or Isabel or Mme. de Vionnet, but The Heroine—a figure who in so many of the Western novels that we know stands for a unique presence that composes and socializes our existence. She is first of all, of course, The Beloved, so long cherished that she has become the idea of what is cherishable. She is the object of so much striving and longing that she is the greatest possible symbol in Western fiction of our power to love. But more than a character, she is a principle, a way of assuring manners, society, civilization. She stands for the Other even more than she does for a specific another. When Anna Karenina breaks the pact of selflessness that so many heroines exist by, in which they have their being, Tolstoy makes it clear that she has violated a law of life and puts it as the epigraph to his novel: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, I will repay.

The necessary association we have with the heroine is this: whether she acts well or badly, or for all practical purposes does not act at all, she is being looked at, she is the object of our contemplation. As Henry James said in book after book, she makes a picture. As a picture she becomes the occasion for sensibility and relatedness on everybody’s part, and often makes a genteel frail book carry the treasure of our affection. Especially in American fiction, where there have been so many men without women, so many whales, bears, misogynists, mad sea captains, solitary cowboys, the peculiar need of women as a civilizing agent has turned the heroine into a cultural ideal like the furnishings.

Hemingway’s terse description of the Italian girl in Across the River and Into the Trees—simply the most beautiful girl in the world—is of course not the description of a girl but the name of an idea. The idea is so much of Italy as the romantic past and the reinvigoration of dwindling energies that the girl is really more an aura than a person. She holds things together in Colonel Cantwell’s anguished mind, but doesn’t have to be a person. To be pondered even when she is unreal, to be an object, an acquisition, a bibelot—this is the heroine as most novelists of middle-class training have portrayed her. She is the cementing element in civilization, that which “groups together” by the very nature of the love—and the belief in love—that has been the main business of the heroine.

Now look away from this fixture of our literary culture, from her whose whole reason for existence is to be looked at and “cherished” with that special attentiveness that has been an essential element of fiction. Think of her not as an object, not even as a genius, Colette or Woolf, directly creating herself in the practice of fiction, but as a contemporary at last outside all the categories formed by so much contemplation of her even by women novelists. We approach a figure who for the first time has something to say to us on the order of many other suppressed and neglected and over-symbolized human beings who have emerged in our revolutionary world to say something out of their experience.

We may then value in women writers that originating if not always original element—the necessarily disturbing element—which we are just beginning to notice in the writing of so-called minorities. But to do this we have to think of women creators, not just women characters, which is something that women critics—Kate Millett in Sexual Politics and Mary Ellmann in Thinking About Women—don’t do when they either scorn or mock the way men write about women. Sartre says in Anti-Semite and Jew that the Jew is someone whom the world considers a Jew—this says a lot about the over-nationalized French Jewish bourgeoisie. But if one of the best minds of our time can so misunderstand the self-direction of others, what shall we say of those women intellectuals who describe women only as misjudgments in the minds of men—who never see behind the aggressiveness of Lawrence or Mailer to the obsessive concern with women that Miss Millett’s only guiltless male, Jean Genet, does not feel?

Numbers are important. There are more women novelists today in America than ever before; they are many. Unlike Ellen Glasgow and Edith Wharton at the beginning of the century, they are not solitary freaks in the old genteel merchant class and therefore rebels against it. Unlike the moralistic New England lady novelists of the nineteenth century, they are not necessarily purer than other human beings. In short, they are not inherently exceptional and privileged; they come out of the modern crowd and in many respects they, too, make up a crowd. They are in the flow of modern American life, and as its discontinuities and breakings up appear in their books, we recognize, as we do with minority writers, proof of civilization as a lie, a baleful sense of responsibilities that can no longer be met, an eroticism that is a plea for life—and for more strength and autonomy. There is often a sense of the limitations of their own experience, a sense of being excluded. And along with this there is that sense of the feminine as a physical condition which Proust expressed perfectly when he said that the writer is one who has to use an injured muscle.

Céline, a doctor as well as a writer, said in an interview:

Woman is very troubled, because clearly she has every kind of known weakness. She needs…she wants to stay young. She has her menopause, her periods, the whole genital business, which is very delicate, it makes a martyr out of her, doesn’t it, so this martyr lives anyway, she bleeds, she doesn’t bleed, she goes and gets the doctor, she has operations, she doesn’t have operations, she gets re-operated, then in between she gives birth, she loses her shape, all that’s important. She wants to stay young, keep her figure, well. She doesn’t want to do a thing and she can’t do a thing. She hasn’t any muscle. It’s an immense problem…hardly recognized. It supports the beauty parlors, the quacks, and the druggists. But it doesn’t present an interesting medical situation, woman’s decline. It’s obviously a fading rose, you can’t say it’s a medical problem, or an agricultural problem. In a garden, when you see a rose fade, you accept it. Another one will bloom. Whereas in woman, she doesn’t want to die. That’s the hard part.

The fading rose, the end of youth, the sense of departing powers—these are particularly marked in the bitterness of Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. This novel was begun many years before it was published as No Safe Harbor and turned into Ship of Fools. The long voyage from Vera Cruz to Hamburg which the young Katherine Anne Porter took in the 1930s she then conceived as the representative voyage into the dissolution of Western society on the eve of World War II. But the many years in which Miss Porter tried to assemble her many scenes into one novel themselves finally became the subject of her novel. The voyage became the writing of the book. And the older Miss Porter got in the writing of it, the more her point of view shifted from the political anger that had influenced her in the Thirties, from her image of society as a leaning tower, to the baleful but perhaps more biological belief that life itself is a foolish enterprise, while time makes monkeys, dwarfs, dupes of us all.

Yet the novel, finally coming out in 1962, succeeded partly because of this physical balefulness and touchiness, the catastrophism of the headlong Sixties in a form easy to read and easy to take. A whole generation of Americans had had their idea of fiction formed by those beautiful stories by Miss Porter which in their laconic irony express perfectly the contrast between the moral character of her heroines and their contracted destiny. In her stories the key figure of the heroine stands for the eager life force, for the artist in life. Woman becomes a work of art in a world stupid with violence. She is a work of art within the larger work of art, by Miss Porter, whose whole aim is to establish the existential reality of a woman’s emotion against the destructiveness of poverty and revolution.

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