Tag: feminist

Not So Supernatural After All

Thomas Hardy’s short story, “The Withered Arm,” addresses social issues of class conflicts through the parallel he draws between the supernatural and reality. Through this parallel, Hardy suggests that the class structures are inevitably and uncontrollably interconnected. Because of this interconnectedness, each class distinction directly affects the other class distinctions, even if unintentionally. Hardy urges the reader to not only draw these connections between social classes, but also exposes the inner turmoil and stereotypical expectations in the mentality from one class division to the other.

Early in “The Withered Arm” Hardy shows the reader the mental impact class division has on individuals. In Parts 1 & 2, Rhoda Brook continuously inquires about Farmer Lodge’s new wife; inquiries which seem to perpetuate from a jealousy or insecurity based on comparison. Even after her son has told her his impression of the farmer’s new wife, and she has told the boy, “That’s all I want to hear” (Hardy), she again probes the boy about the new wife. It seems to be an unquenchable, instinctual curiosity resulting from the human need for acceptance.

If the reader considers Rhoda Brook as a general representation of a lower class of society, and Farmer Lodge’s new wife as representative of an upper class, then Hardy implies with this example of Rhoda’s inquiries that the natural response, lacking any instigation from one side on the other, is envy. Accompanying these envious feelings are feelings of self-comparison and a longing for what the “other side” has/exhibits. Though Rhoda has done nothing at this point to constitute feelings of less self-worth, and though Farmer Lodge’s new wife has done nothing to imply that she thinks herself better than Rhoda, the very essence of social class division presents these implications and burrows them deep into the minds of individuals.

Once the initial negative mental impact is rooted in the individual psyche, the stigma associated with either/any particular class presents itself. In the characters of “The Withered Arm” Hardy shows the reader this prejudice first in Rhoda’s dream in which she very realistically envisions Gertrude Lodge as an “incubus.” This is an evocative word choice which Hardy uses for Rhoda to view Mrs. Lodge as. By its very definition the terms “evil” and “oppressive” are characteristics often suggested of the higher class division. These characteristics become the expected reality, as Hardy conveys in the line, “…Rhoda Brook could raise a mental image of the unconscious Mrs. Lodge that realistic as a photograph” (Hardy).

Following Rhoda’s dream sequence the reader is made aware of the manifestation of the dream in the bruise on Mrs. Lodge’s arm. Rhoda, after having decided that Mrs. Lodge is rather personable, states that she has “exercise(d) a malignant power over people against (her) own will.” This is an unfortunate reality that mirrors the unfortunate reality of the power one social class has to inflict “bruising” upon another social class.

Any “bruising” caused by a lower class is often viewed as an evil infliction by a higher class. As Hardy has Mrs. Lodge claiming that her “husband says it is as if some witch, or the devil himself, had taken hold of me there, and blasted the flesh,” this sentiment, though it is supernatural in its implications, coexists with the more realistic animosity that the lower class is a parasite, or something of evil/sinful influence.

Despite any fault Rhoda may have in the eventual affliction of Gertrude’s arm, Hardy proposes that “she could not conscientiously stand in the way of a possible remedy” (Hardy). This is an interesting statement in which Hardy appears to be suggesting that it is not the lower class that restricts progress, as may often be suggested by those of greater means. In his narrative note that, “She had a strange dislike to walking on the side of her companion where hung the afflicted arm” (Hardy), Hardy insinuates, again, that the lower class (as represented by Rhoda) does not enjoy being the heel of the body which makes up society, and rather attempts to move around and outside of this assumption.

In spite of any attempts to maneuver around one another, Hardy plainly tells the reader that, “a curious creeping feeling that the condemned wretch’s destiny was becoming interwoven with her own” (Hardy), again providing a concept that mirrors the true realities of the relationship between varying class structures. By the end of the story, Hardy has shown multiple ways in which the social classes are undeniably interwoven, with neither side able to be independent of the other. Besides the unacknowledged relationship of the boy (lower class) and Farmer Lodge (higher class), in the end, the cure and/or demise for one is only at the sacrificial price of the other. This, obviously then, creates a scenario in which neither side wins.

Ultimately, the story repeatedly circles itself back around to very blatantly urge the reader to notice the similarities in the relationship between all social classes, as well the mental anguish the impact of class division has on the individual. In the beginning of “The Withered Arm” the reader sees Rhoda’s (lower class) internal struggle; in the last half of the story, the reader sees Gertrude’s (higher class) inner struggles, as well as the continuous effects these interior capacities have overall. More importantly, however, Hardy urges the reader to connect the interconnectedness of class distinctions for his/her self through his use of superstitious symbolism and supernatural events which are really too close to reality for comfort.

Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. “The Withered Arm.” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol.

28. Ed. David Damrosch. New York:Longman, 2003. 1429-1447. Print handout.

Hedda Gabler: Beautiful Freedom in Desperation

The motivations of the character Hedda from Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play, Hedda Gabler, are often debated with varying views and contradictions. Many readers conclude from the play that Hedda is evil, manipulative and calculated; that her actions are unjustified and unfair. As Mrs. T.H. Thompson and John Watson, a child psychologist, advised to “be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle,” then perhaps such conclusive judgments of Hedda’s character are shallow; decided by readers who dare not scratch below the initial surface. Consider, perhaps, that it is not Hedda dealing the greatest injustices, but the reader with his/her lack of compassion and empathy for this woman who is suffocating in expectation and drowning in silent desperation. The reader must consider that to be misunderstood is the most invalid and unnecessary treatment of any human being, and once that is considered, try to “walk a mile in the shoes” of such. A “walk” through Ibsen’s play through the eyes of understanding will not reveal a spoiled, disregarding woman, but instead a lost and searching girl still coming to terms with the establishment of her life as a “Gabler”.

Author Margaret Higonnet, in her book Speaking Silences: Women’s Suicide, suggests by her comment, “For when we categorize a death we do not record a pure fact (if any exist). Rather, we produce a reading that depends upon the physical and subjective context…” (Higonnet), that all things, particularly surrounding death by suicide, should be carefully reviewed in context. A “walk” in Hedda’s “shoes” properly begins when the reader heeds Higonnet’s suggestion and examines the context in which the author, Ibsen, intends the reader to view his heroine. This contextual examination begins from the very beginning, with the title of this play.

Henrik Ibsen, in his cleverness as creator, gave so much more meaning to the title than a common reader would ever initially think to ascribe to it. The use of Hedda’s last name in the title of the play is conclusive as a significant factor in the understanding of her character. The Norton Anthology points out that “Ibsen told us himself that, [he] intended to indicate thereby that as a personality she is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife” (651). Ibsen’s purpose for naming the play Hedda Gabler, as opposed to Hedda Tesman, is because Ibsen wants the reader to be aware of the connectedness between Hedda and the source of her maiden name: her father. While it obviously cannot be disregarded as Ibsen’s purpose for it, the depth of its purpose is much greater than just that initial conception.

Often, analysts of literature assume Ibsen’s purpose for having intentionally connected Hedda to her father in this way is to lead readers to believe that Hedda regards her life under her father as one of more prestige and respect. The emphasis of this specific purpose is often used as evidence that Hedda’s behavior throughout the play is the result of a woman who is spoiled and regretfully missing her youthful days with her father. Because of this assumption, many students of literature are predisposed to a negative image of Hedda, passing judgment on her before considering all the implications of Ibsen’s use of Hedda’s maiden name. Consider, however, instead of dismissing Ibsen’s purpose for using “Gabler” in the title as that of forlorn youth, perhaps Ibsen is attempting to direct the reader to the reason Hedda behaves the way she does. The name “Hedda” means “strife” (Lahr); struggle; battle, and the fact that Ibsen chose that particular name to pair with the distinction of her father’s name, it begins to alert the reader’s attention to a different purpose in the understanding of Hedda Gabler; one that implies a personal “struggle”, rooted as deeply as her life as a Gabler.

Aside from clues left behind by Ibsen in the title, the reader glimpses further parallels that aid in the understanding of the character of Hedda by reading the description of the set that Ibsen wanted his play staged within. At the beginning of Act I, there are a few notable provisions Ibsen specifies for the set that stand out as a sort of abstract parallel to Hedda. Included in the set details is a “portrait of a handsome elderly man in a general’s uniform” (654). When the reader accounts for the multiple noted mentions of General Gabler’s portrait in the stage setting, the reader can begin to see the apparent impact the General had on his daughter and how such a cataclysmic void could form within Hedda Gabler, beginning in childhood.

Stereotypically speaking, it is said that “military brats” and “preacher’s kids” are “the worst” amongst their peer groups. This generalization stems from the acknowledgment of rebellion that often occurs as a result of the stringent control and authority exercised over the children of people in these professions. The very nature of a General is one of strict conduct and iron-fisted authority; both of which are attributes that are necessary to the successful fulfillment of the job and the continuation of a country’s armed forces. By default then, it is not difficult to accept the implication that these same indications are present in the private life of a General, particularly in the raising of one’s child. The constrictions of this authority are suffocating on a clever, spirited girl such as Hedda. The reader never gets to see more than glimpses of this in his/her interaction with the character. By the time Ibsen introduces the reader to Hedda she is already grown and fully drowning in the result of a lifelong struggle against this stifling fate.

Hedda’s upbringing as the daughter of a general can also be linked to the recollection of the treatment of a young Thea at the hands of a young Hedda. It is a clear indication of a troubled young girl bullying her way through adolescence. Karen Waters, a clinical psychologist, said in a forum for Phi Kappa Phi that, “Bullies often grow up in authoritarian households. This style of child-rearing bypasses support and reasoning for more heavy-handed discipline buoyed by parental power” (Waters). Bearing in mind that “everyone we meet is fighting some kind of battle”, when the reader understands the psychology behind Hedda’s treatment of people, the reader can then begin to understand the “battles” Hedda has been fighting. This by no means provides an excuse to justify such behavior, but instead is intended to cause the reader to explore compassion for the suffering of this human life.

Ibsen is clever to ensure that the reader is exposed to snippets of Hedda’s disposition under the reign of her father, the General, throughout various dialogues in the text of the play. Miss Tesman’s recollection to Berta of a younger Hedda Gabler “out riding with her father…in that long black outfit, with the feather in her hat” (655) is the single-most sum of the impact General Gabler had on his daughter. Ibsen assumed it was sufficient in its simplicity that his reader would accept it for its worth as such. Deducted in one, short recollection is the depiction of a young Hedda Gabler “riding” for freedom, but in the presence of the General, never able to break into a run. Hedda, dressed in black, is as unsettled in youth as she is in adulthood.

As inwardly unhappy as Hedda’s life under her father appears to have been, the presence of General Gabler’s portrait throughout her home, and Hedda’s value of the piano and pistols would suggest that she doesn’t resent her father of this. On the contrary, it can be derived from the previous recollection of Hedda “with the feather in her hat” that General Gabler always intended her upbringing to be a source of strength and independence. The idiom of wearing “a feather in one’s hat” means that someone has been exposed to or has experienced something that will be of a great help to them in the future. In the end, what a double-edged sword such a revelation turns out to be. The very upbringing intended to bring her prosperity in life is the same upbringing that would lead to her demise.

Ibsen’s setting of the drawing room also sets for the reader a vaguely foreshadowed glance at the life and demeanor of the play’s namesake. The drawing room, which is “large, pleasantly and tastefully furnished” but “decorated in somber tones” (654), is significant of the “larger than life” experiences, and the woman who can appear pleasant and tasteful, but whose somber inner self dulls the vibrancy of all that could potentially be beautiful in Hedda’s life.

The presence of so many flowers arranged throughout the room denotes this same concept. While people often perceive flowers as things of natural beauty, they are also symbolic through their relationship to the realm of death, and they provide, perhaps the biggest foreshadowing of the result of Ibsen’s play, as well as an important understanding of Hedda’s search for beauty in life.

In his setting of the stage, that Ibsen specifies that “on both sides of the upstage doorway stand shelves displaying terra cotta and majolica objects” (654) seems as a vital significance to collecting the proper notion about his main character. The terra cotta and majolica objects imitate the dynamic contrast of the contradiction that is Hedda Gabler. Terra cotta is a raw, earthenware creation, and majolica is a vibrantly colored representation of a mold. Interestingly, the terra cotta in its natural form, hardened under the burden of firing, is more perfect in its finish than is the majolica which has been groomed and colorfully painted but is often found with crazing. Similarly, throughout the play Hedda Gabler, aware that she is parted from her “terra cotta” self, desperately tries to control the crazing taking place in her “majolica” self.

These two “selves” of Hedda Gabler as represented by terra cotta and majolica are most important to keep in mind while reading the rest of the play. There is a natural Hedda, and there is the painted Hedda that the reader hears so much about. It is easy to deduce without the benefit of doubt that Hedda is “particular” and finicky because the reader is told so by eavesdropping on conversation between Berta and Miss Tesman. Berta’s statement that, “the young mistress wanted so much unpacked before she could settle down” (654), and that “she’s so particular about things” (655) is taken at face value that Hedda is demanding, but in contrast, it is rarely considered that Hedda could be suffering from an anxiety disorder, stemming all the way back to childhood.

The ease that the reader exhibits in trusting the word of every character in the play over that of Hedda is filled with partiality and bias. In fact, from the very beginning it is implied that Hedda is a burden. First, by Miss Tesman in her statement that “we must bear it patiently” (654) at having Berta stay with George Tesman, and then again in a conversation shared between Miss Tesman and George Tesman about the cost of the trip and the cost of the house (657). Just because Ibsen does not spell out for his reader that Hedda is, or is not, aware of this conversation, does not make it so. On the contrary, it is directly following this conversation that Hedda enters, for the first time. Ibsen directs that “her eyes are steel-grey, cold and clear” (659). Perhaps, it is because Hedda has overheard the talk of the burden of cost followed by the immediate vainly possessive statement of ownership (658), as though she were a desired object obtained by the highest bidder, no matter how that bid money was acquired.

Throughout the rest of the play, the reader further alienates Hedda from human hood, pushing her closer and closer to monstrosity. Building on the foundation of constriction and ugliness in Hedda’s childhood, each of Ibsen’s characters press a nerve in one way or another until, as Mary Kay Norseng said in her literary criticism, “Slowly, silently, surely they surrounded her, a cabal disguised as a social group” (Norseng). The one greatest thing of beauty that romantics and philosophers profess as the greatest to life was nonexistent, non-returned, or non-accepted: love. It is no wonder Hedda only knew of it as a “syrupy” word (673).

Oppression came in many forms in the life of Hedda Gabler and she, just a girl amidst it, searching through it all for the freedom out of it. “It’s a liberation for me to know that in this world an act of such courage, done in full, free will, is possible” (705). That was life’s beauty that she had spent her life grasping for and would never attain. John Lahr, author of Hedda, Get Your Gun, claims that Hedda “is not brave; she is reckless, a signal of her resignation. Her life is a living death, so she has nothing to lose” (Lahr). That may be so, but even in her death they would not grant her the acknowledgment of owning her own life and instead dehumanized her by the final statement of the play, “But God have mercy-People just don’t act that way!” (709).

                                                             Works Cited

“Hedda Gabler”. The Norton Anthology World Literature. Shorter Second Edition. Ed.

Peter Simon.New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2009. 13-81. Print

Higonnet, Margaret R.. Speaking Silences: Women’s Suicide. Cambridge: Harvard, 1986.


Lahr, John. “Hedda, Get Your Gun.” Abstract. New Yorker, 85.1 (2009): 110-112. Web.

16 Feb 2012.

Norseng, Mary Kay. “Suicide and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.” Scandinavian Studies, 71.1

(1999): 1,40. Web. 16 Feb 2012.

Waters, Karen. “Teenage Bullies: Might Not Right.” Article. Phi Kappa Phi Forum,

Spring 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

No Easy Way Out

posadacalaveriaFeminist criticism looks at the ways literature continues to corroborate the oppression of women, and in his story, Pedro Paramo, author Juan Rulfo exposes women’s oppression in great depth and shows some of the not-so-ideal endings to having dealt with this oppression. If it is true, as has been suggested, that Rulfo considers Susana San Juan the main character of this story, then it seems evident that his intent in the portrayal of feminist oppression is not to condone the behavior and offer a catalyst of reinforcement of its continuation, but instead to depict the varying ways female oppression is present and the limited ways it is escaped from.

The initial portrayal of women in Pedro Paramo is that of helplessness and dependency upon the wealth and power of men. Rulfo first weaves into the story of Pedro Paramo the many ways, both subtle and evident, in which female oppression is present. From the very opening of the story the reader is introduced to the last wishes of a single mother, poor and deprived, for her son to collect what is owed to him from his absent father (p.2625). The reader gets the sense that the mother is resentful of having lived such a fate (p.2647), and later the reader is exposed to the reality of the burden a single mother is on her family members without the support of a man (p.2634). The portrayal of women as helpless and burdensome is particularly oppressive as it shames the woman into limiting her self-worth and her independence. For many women the fear enables the power of men to maintain the oppression of women.

Fear presents an oppression of its own insidious value as it continually destabilizes a woman’s strength. Destabilization of feminine strength is key, of course, to the perception of worthlessness, thus allowing male dominance to continue its ravenous reign. In Pedro Paramo, the portrayal of Pedro’s expectation of Dolorita to cook and serve his needs, and yet she is never good enough in her endeavors (p.2634) reiterates this self-image of worthlessness. Prior to the expectation of Dolorita to fulfill the domestic role in Pedro’s house, her fear of not being worthy of a man such as Pedro is implied in her worry over the temporary inability to please her husband on their wedding night (p.2633). Rulfo’s portrayal of the woman as required to satisfy her husband’s needs in every way, including sexually, is an ancient expectation along with the representation of women as purposeless except for the fulfillment of a man’s needs. In the book The Shattered Mirror: Representations of Women in Mexican Literature, author Maria Elena de Valdes states that, although it is a common expectation of women all over the world, particularly “in Mexico, women have not just been cast in the role of sex object…; rather they have been taught that their purpose in life is to serve and obey their father and then their husband” (Valdes p.16).

To many women, and under many unfortunate circumstances, these sexual fulfillments end in the reproduction and bearing of children. What is potentially a great blessing can very quickly become heartache and burden on a woman who, after having been used for the man’s dominant release, has been denied not only provision from a responsible man for the life he half created, but also denied the acceptance and opportunity to make her own comfortable place in society.

On the flipside of this bittersweet scenario, is the oppression of society on the woman who cannot bear children. Valdes’ supports this with her statement that “The Mexican woman does not consider herself – nor do others consider her – to be a woman who has reached fulfillment if she has not produced children, if the halo of maternity does not shine above her (Valdes p.16). Rulfo shows his readers the incarnation of this in Dorotea who  shares with Juan her regrets of never having borne a child and dream that it was because she had been given “a mother’s heart but the womb of a whore” (p.2657). The implication of that statement is that a woman who is unable to reproduce is inadequate and therefore unworthy of any greater respect than that of a common street whore, which, in itself, carries the stigma of immeasurable oppressive allusions and issues of degraded self worth.

The issue of degraded self worth is no more evident than in the introduction of Donis and his sister. While Valdes claims that Juan Rulfo indirectly opposed sexism “through irony and the use of the autonomous fictional character” (Valdes p.52), Rulfo made Donis and his sister the culmination of direct, and should-be-obvious, degradation at the cross-center of the story of Pedro Paramo. Donis and his sister, who have been engaged in an incestuous relationship, appear to bear the shame of such very differently from one another. Sharon Magnarelli, in her article “Women, Violence and Sacrifice in Pedro Paramo and la muerta de Artemio Cruz”, states that, “…in Pedro Paramo, Donis’ sister (who apparently has no name) is blamed for their incestuous relationship and censured by all. It is she who is marked by sin, she whom the bishop admonishes, she who dissolves into mud before Juan’s eyes. It would appear, if we are to judge by the reactions of the other characters, that Donis, her partner in this transgression, is somehow less reprehensible” (Magnarelli). Interesting also that, in the end, it is the sister who continues to live in the guilt of it all from her realm of the dead while her brother, Donis, comes and goes presently independent of it in the world of the living (p.2654).

The incestuous affair of Donis with his sister is not the only forced incest upon a woman in Pedro Paramo, nor is it the only visibly direct oppression of the women of Comala. Aside from the incest of Donis’ sister, there are implications of an incestuous relationship between Susana San Juan and her father, Bartolome. Fulgor Sedano’s statement to Pedro regarding Susana’s return to Comala that, “…the way he treats her, she seems more like his wife” (p.2669), though it is not as direct in its reference as is the incest of Donis and his sister, it is implied. The implication then explains Susana’s insistence on referring to her father by his first name, and offers a glimpse into the edge of her madness (2670). In their article, “Psychotherapy with Vietnam Veterans and Rape and Incest Survivors,” authors Ellen Dye and Susan Roth compare the posttraumatic stress disorder of rape and incest survivors with that of Vietnam veterans who “came home to a hostile America in which they felt cut off, distant from, and misunderstood by other Americans.” Similarly, Dye and Roth go on to compare, “rape and incest survivors commonly report feeling similarly alienated. Because of negative perceptions of the Vietnam War and of the pervasive existence of myths about women who become survivors of sexual trauma, both veterans and sexual trauma survivors commonly experience a lack of both social and institutional support” (Dye). The psychological claim by Dye and Roth not only offers insight into the oppression of Susana, but also supports the double standard related to the affair of Donis and his sister.

Aside from the direct oppression of incestuous actions, blatant sexual oppression of women is evident in the innumerable potential rapes committed by Pedro’s son, Miguel. Miguel’s alleged rape of Ana exemplifies the same oppression regarding rape that is active in today’s society as well. Father Rentaria’s continual probing of Ana’s recollection of the presumably traumatic experience causes not only the reader to begin to question Ana’s credibility, but also serves to degrade and humiliate Ana, the victim of sexual assault (p. 2638). Father Rentaria’s question to Ana, “So what did you do to make him leave?” and her response of, “I didn’t do anything” (p.2639), so classically exemplifies the unfounded, yet common misconception, that women who are raped do not try hard enough to stop it. The whole text around the above conversation is obviously Rulfo’s attempt at making a mockery of the ridiculousness and insensitivity that female victims of trauma typically have to endure.

It is interesting that Rulfo chose the character of a woman to be that which would be the accomplice to man’s forceful and determined oppression of women. Dorotea’s confession of having assisted Miguel by providing him access or information to the women he preyed upon is disheartening (p.2665), however, it is an eye-opening inclusion and rather clever on Rulfo’s part. Rulfo seems to use sisterhood as a means of condoning and promoting patriarchy by appeasing the powers that be. The sisterhood of women fail to support and uplift one another in the examples of both, Dorotea collecting women for Miguel, and Dolorita’s persuasion of Ediveges in plotting so that Pedro can potentially be satisfied on his wedding night even in spite of nature’s cycle which Dolorita has no control over in the first place (p.2633). Instead, of banding together to firmly stand against such degrading treatment and oppressive culture, the sisterhood selfishly sacrifice each other for a single moment of protection and/or providence by a man.

Unfortunately, Rulfo provides only three escapes from female oppression in the village of Comala: exile, death, or madness. The option of exile, as chosen by Dolorita, carries with it many sacrifices, as well as the inevitable extra burden on family members. It seems, however, that, in leaving and losing, the peace comes at least in death. Dolorita appears to be the most calm and collected of all the haunting voices in the story. For those who die, whether naturally or by their own hands, while still under the suffocation of oppression, the oppression follows them to the grave. Dolorita’s statement, “…that is, if death ever had a voice” (p.2628) seems to say that even in death there may be no escape; no voice to speak out and change something. Even in death, the oppression of women consumes.


Works Cited

Magnarelli, Sharon. “Women, Violence and Sacrifice in Pedro Paramo and La muerte de

            Artemio Cruz.” Inti: Revista de literature hispanica (1981): 13-7. Web. 4 May.   2012.

Rulfo, Juan. “Pedro Paramo.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Vol. F. Ed. Sarah

Lawall and Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 2002. 2625-2692. Print.

Valdes, Maria Elena de. The Shattered Mirror: Representations of Women in Mexican

            Literature. Austin, TX: the University of Texas Press, 1998. Print.