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Real Women

The subtitle of these five essays is “Women and Literature,” and they make a whole; they are not just a collection. The topics are the Brontës, Ibsen’s women, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Jane Carlyle; there is a last chapter on seduction and betrayal of women as a novelists’ theme, a modern one, in Hawthorne, Richardson, Tolstoy, and Hardy. Ibsen is Miss Hardwick’s starting point, and the most penetrating, commanding essay in this strongly written and subtle book is on Hedda Gabler.

For Ibsen the emancipation of women, and the discovery of spontaneity and of the sources of a new vitality in the middle classes, are a single, complex subject, not to be disentangled in his imagination. Miss Hardwick probes the nature of the overpowering evil in Hedda Gabler, and brings to the probing a critical intensity that fits the subject. It does seem that the evil, the rage to destroy, in Hedda Gabler is not meant to be ordinarily intelligible and that it transcends impulse and the clear outlines of a character formed by circumstances. The evil seems to be in the nature of modern consciousness of sex and of society, and it is not within the compass of psychological remedy or of social reforms.

The sexual dullness, provincial smallness and triviality, the spoiled romantic dreams, which Emma Bovary has to endure as a child of her time, and by which she is destroyed, are frustrations visited upon her which she does not fully understand. She is passive, a victim, a woman with a woman’s typed sexuality and dated romanticism, and the product of a man’s imagining of feminine failure. Not only that: but the ache and void which she feels, the dominion of boredom from which she struggles to escape, have a historical setting, and are presented as features of her time; she is a figure of bitter comedy, rather than of tragedy, and she conveys a political moral. If popular culture, as Flaubert sees it, were less degraded, Emma would be less degraded also. Not so Hedda.

Hedda Gabler wonderfully escapes from the typed sexuality of other provincial women of literature, who are confined and unsatisfied; she is an agent with her own power and direction, not a creature of circumstance. She has an empty will, a will that wills only itself, without interests or substantial ends. There is no social position that she wants, or new order of society with her own place in it imagined. She is rejecting her own existence as a woman who ought to please and be pleased rather than rejecting the specific limiting conditions of her existence. Miss Hardwick remarks that an actress who represents her as caged, restless and hungrily pacing, as many do, scarcely represents her at all. She is more threatening and more positive, not just deprived, and not just oppressed by social conditions and by a weak husband and by the temporary status of women. She howls, in her mind, with a universal boredom, with a dull ache of disconnection. She is not to be made happy by social change, because she has lost the idea of happiness. It has faded with other banalities, like book learning.

The new energy of Hedda Gabler, black and unpredicted, is that of the unused portion of humanity, testing its strength and pushing aside tired, used-up men who carry too much of the past with them and too much knowledge of the past. Her father is dead and she is not interested, whether as tourist or lover, in any other link to the past. The men, even the apparently free and enlightened, are always drawing on old friendships, old intrigues, old learning to support them: as if continuity could give significance to lives which are otherwise and in themselves insignificant. This plea for continuity is the family trap, and for Hedda it is amusing just not to fall into it, to ask “why should I?” and to wait for what happens next.

None of Miss Hardwick’s women outside Ibsen’s plays (Emily Brontë, Jane Carlyle) seems to strike at the sexual basis of family piety; for they do not suggest, as Ibsen’s women did, that it is a mark of modernity for the family to consist of exhausted men, tied by convention, stuffy, corrupt, weak, shuffling pretenses who are waiting to be exposed and renewed by hard women. This was a northern myth, merely sexual in some Strindberg plays, but part of a deeper social analysis in Ibsen, to which Miss Hardwick alludes. It is so variously built into the plays that it cannot be separately stated except in vague terms. A pall of nervous boredom falls over the house toward the end of the century of progress: boredom with good liberal politics, boredom with universities and academic studies, boredom with great, admired art and architecture and with cultured sightseeing in Italy, boredom with provincial love affairs and equally with local good works.

There is a blank indifference, a numbness, a final not caring: not a dramatic accidie, which might have some dignity, or at least pathos, but rather a draining of significance away from external life and from persons, a deadness of feeling. Miss Hardwick writes, “In the coffin of her life she wants amusement: she likes to brush against risk and danger; she feels a compulsion to overturn [Lövborg’s] reclamation, the accomplishment, the future.” She dwells on Hedda’s coolness, her skepticism, her cultivation of style without purpose, her amused play with guns and with suicide, with runaway disasters and fatal coincidences.

One may ask why a fictional person should call for so many pages of brilliant exploration and insight, for such careful description and analysis, as if a play were a history of the times. I am now writing about Miss Hardwick writing about Ibsen’s invention: Is this not a kind of quixotism, taking fiction for reality? The almost Shakespearean vividness of the play leads one to take Hedda’s philosophy of boredom as an actual emergency. Miss Hardwick is a critic who at the same time inquires into the powers and methods of the writer and also into the worldly meaning of his or her attitudes and themes. It is possible that the theatrical magic of Ibsen misleads us, and that the indifference, the sense of vacuity, the rage and emptiness of Hedda Gabler, and the lesser ferocity of other Ibsen heroines, were a phenomenon of Christiania and the fjords, of a northern corner of Europe, and are not an illumination of a more general sex consciousness.

Miss Hardwick’s essay persuades me that the play is as much truth as magic. One seems to recognize the abyss that Ibsen uncovered. An entirely enlightened mind, just recently conscious of its strength and underemployed, finally corrodes and bleaches all the material of which respect is made—observances, memories of a shared past, moral resolutions for the future: no stain of weak and ordinary sentiment will remain, no differentiation of feeling and therefore no point of attachment. Why carry on the family, and therefore why carry on the race? Only a feminine skepticism, newly aroused, can be so totally subversive.

The contrast is with the many deprivations of the Brontës, which were an aspect of the helplessness of dependent women, who needed husbands before they could to any degree form and control their lives; without husbands or money to compel respect and recognition, they were on the margin of the world, locked in at home, irrelevant except in their own imaginations. Publication and literary fame were the path into the upper air rather as show business was for the blacks in the US.

Miss Hardwick writes about the potential governesses, the wasted middle-class ladies, fenced in with their own thoughts of escape and of risk, who were at once a public for fiction and a source of it, being denied a share in history, unless it were through fortunate marriage or intrigue. They must make conquests, and find compensation, in long hours of reading and writing letters or in novels. All these are alternate and temporary conditions, like lacking the vote, and they make the program of women’s liberation movements. They are the results of traceable social changes: the new unextended middle-class family, the new Protestant wealth in savings and thrift, the new openings for enterprising new men, the new gentility required of ascending women, who must manage servants and a home and exhibit accomplishments by writing letters and by working on the fringe of the arts.

The women change their roles gradually as the supporting conditions change. With women at work in war and with earned independence, with new forms of transport, with churches and chapels emptying and Christian chastity changing, with controlled childbearing and contraception, with universal education. The Victorian governess, and the talented wife who never rises to full self-expression, are parts of an episode in a segment of nineteenth-century history. It is difficult to imagine Jane Carlyle complaining with so much wit and fluency as a housewife in any other period or in any other part of Europe or in the US. The horrors of domestic servitude, and of being ancillary and obedient, were local and transient. She made the most of them, and she has finally lived on in the minds of others, quite uncrushed and not greatly diminished by her deprivations. If she had lived in 1974, yoked to noisy, awkward genius, she would have had perhaps a wider outlet, a more immediate fame; but the difference is not vast.

But Hedda Gabler, and Ibsen’s heroines generally, suggest a more general sexual revolution which really turns upon sex, and not on a particular social status: as if his women were revolting, with the withdrawal not of labor but of affect, against an idea of femininity which they have shared with men for many centuries. Hedda disclaims feeling and withdraws from a common humanity; she is on strike emotionally, and her smiling, sarcastic detachment is a new kind of anarchy, a black hole in the social order. When she looks at herself in the mirror she is amused by what she sees, and amused by the thought of experiments in identity and by the poses that she might adopt.

Miss Hardwick’s essay leaves the idea that the social world, or the urbane parts of it, might end in a new ice age of not caring: not in a flurry of egotism and appetite leading to conflict, as has usually been supposed, but in passivity and nonattachment, in a general spreading coldness, in a refusal to believe that the ordinary self-perpetuating business of the species is finally important and that this business still needs to be respected or held sacred. Hedda Gabler was conceived long before the massacres of this century, but her cultured pitilessness, her philosophy of indifference, the casualness with which she destroys seem a premonition. She is mildly surprised at herself, coolly curious when she finds that she inflicts pain without minding; the suffering seems to her weightless and insubstantial. It does not count. Warmth, color, and full-bloodedness have been drained from the surrounding family and from the social world some time ago, and those who suffer are marionettes, still twitching in an old, now meaningless comedy of a supporting feminine charm and revered masculine learning.

This late not caring is not pathological, a mental illness; it is an offshoot of rational criticism and of reading German philosophy. There is no respect left between men and women because the sexual roles descended from chivalry are a tired pretense. The myth of the continuance of the family as an overriding duty has gone the other way of other myths. There is no urgency in propagation. The fact that the race is exhausted is proved by the fact that women are contemptuous.

Seduction and betrayal, it seems to me, are lesser themes. Miss Hardwick’s critical reflections on Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, on Tess, on Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, on Clarissa are arresting, sharp, and expressed with an extraordinary accuracy and fastidiousness; there is not a loose or unweighed word. Literature is used without apology as a guide to life and to honest feeling, and as a means to the extension of sympathy.

On Dorothy Wordsworth, “Her dependency was so greatly loved and so desperately clung to that she could not risk anything except the description of the scenery in which it was lived.” Of Jane Carlyle, “His [Carlyle’s] grandiosities are accomplished in the midst of her minute particulars.” In both cases the writing is seen as a response to a singular trap—“all we can look for are the openings she—and Dorothy Wordsworth, also—came upon, the little alleys for self-display, the routes found that are really a way of dominating the emotional material of daily life.” Of Sylvia Plath, “To her fascination with death and pain she brings a sense of combat and brute force new in women writers.” And, “She seemed to be standing at a banquet like Timon, crying, ‘Uncover, dogs, and lap!’ ”

This is a continuously enjoyable book; and the account of Ibsen is memorable.

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