Yates and women

Sorry I have been quiet for so long; just too much going on. However, let’s get down to business now…..I would welcome your thoughts on Yates’s portrayal of women. I will have a go at considering this myself but feel free to chip in, criticize and/or argue with my observations.

Yates’s writing displays a prescient awareness of gender politics but, as with all his political commentary, his expression of this consciousness is fused into his broader narratives. In his early work, work written up to and including Revolutionary Road‘s publication in 1961, Yates’s depiction of the struggles men, and more particularly women, encounter, both within and outside the home, prefigure some of the concerns adopted by the second wave of feminism.  Although Yates’s work was not propelled by an interest in sexual politics, he wrote about what he knew and observed, thus producing insights that now seem ahead of their time and at cross-purposes with how America wanted to see itself.  Although he was not alone in doing this, the issues he drew attention to did not become part of mainstream thinking until after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 – even if, as several contemporary social historians suggest, the ideas Friedan included in her book had been around long before 1963; Friedan gave voice and recognition, so they now argue, to attitudes already quite established. Yates’s early work, written during the mid-fifties (as all but one of the stories in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness were), seems to suggest our contemporary historians are right; the ideas were around and Yates picked up on them, incorporating many quite radical ideas into his fiction.

In his later work, he went on to develop his investigation into how women inhabit a proscribed space in life.  The Easter Parade (1976), his fourth novel, suggests his increasing awareness of this issue as his story is centred on the struggles of his female protagonist, Emily Grimes, and her older sister Sarah.  Both sisters try to become writers and for different reasons fail in this ambition.  Since the only consolation Yates ever seems to find in life is in writing, it seems doubly significant that these women fail in their ambition to be writers. Being prevented from writing, as Sarah is, would seem to be tantamount to stealing the soul of an individual in Yates’s eyes, stealing not just their imaginative potential but the dreams that give them hope.

In the course of his narrative Yates suggests how men, threatened by female ambition, hold back the women they live with.  At the same time, Yates also weaves into this novel his awareness of domestic violence, suggesting an understanding of the vulnerability of women within marriage that should be noted.  Furthermore, Yates’s inclusion of abortion in several stories, notably Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, suggests attentiveness to, and sensitivity towards, the political debate about the rights of women.  However, I do not, and could not, argue that Yates was a proto-feminist: he was not.  There are bad young mothers in his fiction too – look at ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’. There is a real split between Yates’s intellectual appreciation of how life is peculiarly difficult for women within marriages that constrain them or diminish them and his emotional distaste for anything that smacks of a political move to address those issues.  Blake Bailey draws some attention to Yates’s feelings on the subject, when, in the early 1970s, his second wife Martha was thinking of leaving him:

Largely to spare his feelings, she’d spoken in rather vague terms about wanting to “find herself,” and Yates concluded that she’d become a “womens’-libbing bitch” as he sometimes put it.  He couldn’t speak calmly on the subject; partly, perhaps, because his mother’s “independence” had caused him so much grief, Yates’s hatred for all “feminist horseshit” bordered on the pathological. (Bailey, p.429)

And then, of course, there are all the failing older women of his fiction. Coming from his emotional dislike and resentment of his own mother, the portraits of these women – Pookie, Gloria Drake et al – they seem to dominate but shouldn’t obscure what he is also saying about the politics of womanhood.

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2 Responses to “Yates and women”

  1. Hola, compadre. Sorry to be slow on this resurgence, and I missed the dialogue with Dewitt Henry last month on Special Providence. Have to catch up.

    I would start by looking at A Natural Girl, or whatever it’s called. I’ll let you go first. Sun and the moon and all that.

    Do we think that Yates took anything in his portrayal of women in fiction from Chekhov? We’ve been down this road before, of course, and we know he read Chekhov in the hospital, so there’s the hospital story–I forget which one it is. Not that I’m obsessing on Chekhov–you’re the one who mentioned it in the other thread. Just complex, Chekhov’s portrayal of women, and it evolved over time as well, which is what you’re commenting on in Yates.

    No, not Chekhov–as you know I’m sidetracked onto Hawthorne, not to mention George Eliot. And there, as I’ve posted, you’ve got the suicide of Zenobia. The thing I haven’t gotten to yet is the next step in my look at what I’m calling a “four-hander” (there’s got to be a better word for it), moving from Blithedale through Bostonians to The Great Gatsby (Gatsby and Nick, Jordan and Daisy), and once you’re at Fitzgerald you’re at Yates. I went into it looking for The Bostonians, but I was surprised to see that Hollingsworth/Coverdale is as close to Gatsby/Nick as you can get, but before that, because of Zenobia’s suicide, I was thinking of April Wheeler and Frank/Shep–and I guess it would be April/Maureen, come to think of it now. So that means, for anyone still keeping track, that Frank and Shep are really just versions of Hawthorne and Melville.

    Also ready, as I mentioned, to dig into writing about “Hypocrisy and Self-Deception in Hawthorne’s Fiction,” and you know I’ll be thinking about Yates and his treatment of those issues in his work.

  2. kateonyates Says:

    Great to hear from you zhiv, as ever. It’s a bit slow round here just now as I am immersed in writing – finally- that final chapter. So lots of thoughts on gender roles, sexual ignorance and pressure towards marriage will be up soon.

    Just as an aside really, I re-read ‘The Best of Everything’ yesterday and marvelled at it. What a great writer Yates is and to be able to say that after three years of near-constant study of his work, is wonderful indeed.

    Until later then… by which time you’ll have written another 10 posts on your own site and I just can’t keep up.

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