2010 Update: more on women

Many apologies to those of you who loyally clock in hoping to find something new, interesting and challenging here: how disappointed you must be to discover that I’ve been so idle and haven’t written anything for weeks. By the way, who are all the hundreds of people who checked into this blog on the 27th December?? I’d love you to get in touch – perhaps not all of you though! It’s been ‘head down time’ as I get ever nearer to completing and submitting my thesis while at the same time editing a couple of pieces for different journal articles and running a family of young adults.

I’m currently putting the finishing touches to a piece about Yates’s fictional treatment of women; it’s too long and so I have to cut it down but here’s a taster:

In all his fiction, Yates explores a world in which women live diminished lives; while not overtly championing women’s right to work, nor indeed their domestic rights, Yates observes that society restricts women and interrogates the forms of those restrictions. (With the publication of The Feminine Mystique, 1963 is normally regarded as the date when ‘the problem that had no name’ was addressed and I use it therefore as an indicator of change even if that view now seems simplistic.) By focussing on Sarah Grimes’s thwarted desire to write, or Rachel Drake’s (Cold Spring Harbor) determination to get married in order not to break the cardinal rule that forbade sex before marriage (Jessica Weiss addresses this issue, indicating that the desire to have sex was, in the fifties, a powerful inducement to marriage: ‘Bowing to or upholding social conventions that frowned on premarital sex, couples married early in part because they were eager for sexual intimacy.’ (Weiss, To Have and To Hold, p.24), Yates highlights the terms of their controlled lives. What he does not do, however, is suggest that women were, in any organised fashion, becoming articulate about their situation. In that sense he stands apart from the terms of many of the retrospective sociological commentaries. Wini Breines, for instance, prefaces her book with these words:

The feminism of the past twenty-five years enables us to see that white, middle-class girls who were taught in the 1950s that their main goals in life were to become wives and mothers only ambivalently internalized these values and sometimes rejected them outright, embracing instead a wider world.(Wini Breines, Young, White, and Miserable, p. ix)

Rather than adopting a radical standpoint which would have marked him down as an early feminist of the second wave, Yates explores women’s uncertainty about their role in his fiction. Of course, his explorations come from a male perspective but the ambivalence of his standpoint was indicative of the uncertainty and confusion of the era. Whatever their intellectual or rational selves taught them about the way forward for the division of labour within the home, for instance, men and women ‘valued traditional family patterns and followed a traditional…course’ (Weiss, p.69); as Jessica Weiss expresses it, ‘norms of masculinity and femininity still tethered these postwar couples.’ (Weiss, p.31)

The Easter Parade (1976), suggests his increasing awareness of the difficulties of life for women 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.  Their thwarted desire to write is just one of the ways that Yates uses to indicate how men, threatened by female ambition, hold back the women they live with. As Elaine Showalter indicates in her chapter on the 50s, ‘women writers tended to be isolated in their rooms, homes, and marriages.’ (Showalter, A Jury of Her Peers, p.393) At the same time, Yates also weaves domestic violence into this novel, 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 wider political debate about the rights of women.

As I have indicated, Yates’s work reinforces a contemporary revisionist view that sees the fifties, not the sixties, as the time when women’s rights became a new part of the socio-political agenda. However, I do not, and could not, argue that Yates was a proto-feminist: he was not.  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, A Tragic Honesty, 2003 p.429)

The contradictoriness of his attitude towards women and their role in life is evident here. His observations about gender roles in his fictions only make sense if one understands that his views were not driven by ideological concerns. Noticing how constrained they were, Yates felt women should be able to work and have a life independent of the home: feeling the effects of this in his own life, he felt they should still put the concerns and needs of their husbands first; to do less was to earn his contempt.

In his fictions, despite much interest in the plight of the ‘diminished female’, scorn is heaped on both feminists and postmodernists alike and it is with some relish that he fuses the two in his fourth novel The Easter Parade. Emily is invited to a party, a grim affair with no single men, but the hosts tell her about Trudy, their neighbour, who gives masturbation classes to lonely women: ‘Sort of the ultimate in radical feminism. Who needs men? (TEP, p.215) the host dryly observes. Emily goes along with others to see Trudy’s studio and finds herself looking at ‘what looks like a sculptured sunburst of many podlike aluminum shapes’ (Ibid., p.216), cast, Trudy explains, from her students’ vaginas. ‘There were no more parties’,(Ibid.)Yates writes. As Bailey points out, this ‘elliptical leap…nicely summarizes his attitude toward radical feminism.’ (Blake Bailey http://www.slate.com/id/2207635/pagenum/all/#p2) Women independent of men was something Yates was both contemptuous of and feared; he expressed similar contempt towards homosexuality with equally conflicting results. Despite highlighting the homophobia prevalent in the fifties in a story such as ‘A Clinical Romance’, or in his depiction of artists in Young Hearts Crying, Monica Yates, in a recent interview with Yates’s daughters, recalls his horrified reaction when she suggested that she might join the army: “Everyone in the army is lesbians! You can’t go in the army, baby.” (Kate Charlton-Jones, ‘Living on Revolutionary Road, The Times, Jan. 24th 2009  http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/article5573136.ece)


4 Responses to “2010 Update: more on women”

  1. Rebecca de Pelet Says:

    So glad to have your work available. I will certainly get the boys at school online. I have steered their coursework towards notions of masculinity and so will let you know if some are any good!

  2. kateonyates Says:

    With a class full of boys you will get some interesting readings, especially about masculinity and the constant desire to ape the macho look, walk, dress of the heroic male of fifties America. I look forward to hearing how you get on. Yates’s very autobiographical novel, A Good School might make interesting reading in this context and it’s not nearly as long as RR.

  3. What a wonderful post – I can’t wait to start exploring the rest of your blog. I have just read through a lot of Yates’ novels for a Yates season on my own blog and am now reading the Blake Bailey biography. I am so delighted to have found someone analysing his work so intelligently and thoroughly – and am phenomenally jealous that you are doing a PhD on Yates! What made you interested in him in the first place? Are you doing your PhD at an English or American university? Sorry for the Spanish inquisition, but I am just so excited to have found your blog!

  4. kateonyates Says:

    Thank you so much bookssnob: all encouragement gratefully received. It’s pretty sleepy round here as you can see since I having been working like a demon to finish the thesis. I am doing it an at English University – Essex – and have had such a good time working on this. The last few weeks have been hard graft, not writing but correcting, moving commas around and checking references. It all takes so long. On top of that I managed to knock a glass of water onto my keypad and although I didn’t lose any work, I lost my computer for two weeks. Idiot!

    As to what made me interested in Yates, just as Richard Ford’s ‘cultural literary handshake’ indicates, a friend gave me RR five years ago and I was blown away. I tried to find out more about him and, as you will know, there was very little there. Since I was doing an MA at the time I immediately started thinking about a PhD on Yates. And now…..? Who knows what’s next.

    I hope you enjoy the rest of your reading and keep in touch.

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