Do Selfless Heroines Need to Be Self Suppressing Women?
“She knew, to the moving of a feather, what she could do with him and what she could not. Her immediate wish was to enable him to draw all possible pleasure from his triumph of the day, and therefore she would say no word to signify that his glory was founded on her sacrifice.” –Anthony Trollope, Golden Lion of Granpère
Every inch the Victorian novelist, Trollope regarded female self-sacrifice as a cardinal virtue. And yet he was surprisingly ahead of his time–and ahead of other male writers–in exploring the problems of identity, self-worth and self-assertion among his female characters. He was sharply aware of the untenable and unethical oppression of women in patriarchal Victorian society. His scores of novels relentlessly explore this problem. And while his solutions always come down in favor of men wielding the role of “master,” Trollope persistently looks for ways that women, amid Victorian constraints, can find ways to establish and express their intellect, acumen, strength, endurance and even leadership. He also insisted on the imperfection of heroes and heroines. His virtuous characters all had serious flaws, and his many of his most delinquent women, whether guilty of fraud, forgery, theft or even prostitution, had distinctive virtues. A key question for Trollope was how women, given the Victorian requirement to subordinate themselves to men and to forsake individuality in favor of family or community, could still foster a self and bring their individual gifts to bear on society. His answers, usually involving marriage, are pretty unsatisfactory by today’s standards. But his questions are surprisingly pertinent.
Enter contemporary novelists like Ann Tyler, and protagonists like Delia Grinstead, the protagonist of Ladder of Years (1995), and Willa Drake of Clock Dance (2018). These two heroines take journeys that are the contrary of the typical Trollopian woman, abandoning marriages in favor of a sort of limbo. Delia leaves her suburban Baltimore family to take up residence in a small town Eastern Shore where she neither fits in nor stands out. Willa moves from Arizona to Baltimore to serve in an undefined capacity to people with whom she has little connection–her son’s ex-girlfriend, Denise, and Denise’s nine-year-old daughter, both highly flawed individuals. In both cases, marriage itself is neither the problem nor the answer. Nor are the men in these middle-aged women’s lives, while obviously domineering and unsympathetic, their main problem. What becomes evident by the end of both novels is that Delia and Willa each realize that to an extent, they have tolerated their own self-dissolution by indulging the worst qualities of their husbands and children. They discover that their sense of self can be built on a different sort of service to others–one that takes advantage of their individual talents and inclinations. Those “others,” moreover, can be people of their choosing, not just the people who fate and kinship happen to throw them together with. “Their glory” might still be founded on “her sacrifice,” but it is a sacrifice that she elects freely, not under constraints of family expectations.
Tyler is not an apologist for self-denying women, but she does fashion heroines whose behavior and whose values are more in line with Trollope’s Victorian women than with the heroines of today’s popular fiction. Popular heroines tend to be a lot like Lisbeth Salandar, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, who, for all her troubles and darkness, is basically a clone of traditional male heroes–commanding, masterful, able to dominate her foes. Tyler’s women aren’t remotely interested in dominating; they’d much rather serve, preferably in ways that do not draw attention to themselves. They seek to be members of a community that truly needs them, rather than serving men by simply propping up their egos. There is where Tyler parts ways with her Victorian predecessors; her heroines give us real alternatives to traditional self-oriented heroism.
The realist tradition that Trollope upheld and perpetuated has a branch of writers that develop this line of alternative heroines. I’m thinking of English writers such as Daphne Du Maurier (after all, the heroine of Rebecca doesn’t even reveal her name), Penelope Lively and Anita Brookner. But also Americans such as Jane Smiley (who is a Trollope enthusiast–more on that in my next post), Ann Tyler and, I think, even Andrew Sean Greer, whose best-seller, Less, is about a gay man, not a woman. Which leaves me with the question: do gender and sexual orientation necessarily figure into the effort to create alternatives to the male-centered heroic tradition?
Todd S. Garth teaches Spanish and Portuguese Language and Latin American and Spanish cultural studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he was the first openly gay faculty member. He is the author of two critical studies of (long dead) Spanish American authors and an enthusiastic reader and commentator of fiction of all kinds. He is currently at work on a historical novel, The Mayor of Newark.