Men, Women and the Literary Canon

Irresponsibility

I recently read John Steinbeck’s ‘The Murder’ and ‘The Fall and Rise of Mrs Hapgood’ by Martha Gellhorn. The former debuted in 1934; the latter some thirty years later. Encountering the pair was coincidence; I was looking for the author’s respective travel memoirs and wound up with short story volumes instead. This piece of luck brought me hard up against my preconceived notions about “literature”.

Almost everyone has read at least one short story by John Steinbeck. Few, I wager, have read any by Ms Gellhorn. I hadn’t. The jacket blurb on Pretty Tales for Tired People promising “ironical and entertaining contributions to the literature of social satire” didn’t tempt me, but I ventured in out of love for her journalism. The final story in the collection, ‘Mrs Hapgood’ hooked me with the declaration that the protagonist was: “fifty-one years of age and tortured by growing pains”. I read Gellhorn’s deft prose with growing awe – not just for its impeccable style but because it was telling a story I could relate to. Reading ‘The Murder’ a few days later was uncomfortable, but it felt familiar. I realised ‘Mrs Hapgood’ rewrites ‘The Murder’ from the female perspective. Presumably the very educated Martha Gellhorn read Steinbeck’s tale, though I have no idea if ‘Mrs Hapgood’ was a consciously written as a riposte (biographical accounts suggest not).

‘The Murder’ tells of the “great and important” moment when Jim, the protagonist, asserts his manhood by murdering his wife’s lover, and beating her “bad as [he] could without killing her”. ‘Mrs Hapgood’ tells of the eponymous Faith Hapgood’s great and important struggle to recreate her life after discovering her perfect marriage is a sham and her trusted husband a serial cheat. Only instead of outward violence she takes a knife to her cherished self-perceptions. “She did not want to blame and run away,” Gellhorn reports, “she wanted to dig in and find answers.”

What are the crucial differences between the two? Why did Steinbeck’s story win an O. Henry Prize. While Gellhorn’s drew damp praise, even from biographer Caroline Moorehead who writes it is, “one of her best and cruellest… however… the suffering is superficial, and the worldly pleasures provide a lasting balm”? Despite my Ivy League prejudice in favour of dead white men nothing about ‘Mrs Hapgood’ explains why it has been buried by history while ‘The Murder’ thrives. Why does Steinbeck’s work come branded “great literature” while Gellhorn hardly warrants a footnote? If the canon is chosen purely on merit, for the universal significance of its themes and overarching excellence of its artistry, why did I experience a completely novel sensation while reading Steinbeck and Gellhorn side-by-side? Why did I feel, for the first time, I was seeing both sides of the story?

I relate to ‘Mrs Hapgood’ easily, to her uptight desire to be self-sufficient, her paroxysms of righteousness, her naïve belief that respectability is a virtue and passion an unnecessary complication. I flinch, laugh, start with recognition. I read ‘The Murder’ and see, as if for the first time, how a male protagonist obscures, nearly obliterates, the female. Jim’s wife, Julka, is “so much like an animal that sometimes [he] petted her head and neck under the same impulse that made him stroke a horse”. She never emerges as anything more than a silent, doe-eyed cipher. Her adultery is the only indication of a functioning internal life. I don’t want to carp. A story can only really be about one person at a time. ‘The Murder’ is about Jim. Yet Julka has a story, and ‘Mrs Hapgood’ imagines her side. Faith’s imperturbability, her efficiency, her good-natured support of her husband’s hobbies, mirror Julka’s dutiful demeanour, the way she anticipates Jim’s wants, how she stays at home while he goes to town to flirt with the women in the saloon. Both women have learned a role too-perfectly. Their triumphal submersion in wifely duties repels their husbands, who want wives but desire women.

All the characters are trapped in a culture that makes an either/or distinction between desirable women and wives. In one sense, the stories are about each party’s struggle to adjust to these implacable social circumstances. Jim accepts the strictures of patriarchy and, through an outburst of violence, pledges himself to its perpetuation. He’s a man. A spot at the top of the heap is his for the taking. After committing murder and nearly killing his wife, he moves through life with new confidence; “he knows that when he goes to town with his plump and still pretty wife people turn and look at his retreating back with awe and some admiration.” Faith does not have the luxury of simply claiming a birthright. She is a woman. Who she is, and what she wants, repeatedly gets tangled up in who she’s with. Revitalised, at first, by a new lover, she soon discovers that ‘mistress’ is as constricting as ‘wife’ – neither allows her to be herself. Self-realisation means carving out an independent life. No men. No role-play.

The honest pessimism of ‘Mrs Hapgood’ sits better with me than the slick ending of ‘The Murder’, but that’s a matter of taste. What is irrefutable is that I have a richer, more nuanced understanding of human nature for having read both stories. It staggers me I’m so well-educated I’ve only ever read one side of the story. Joyce, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Cervantes, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hardy – all authors I love and admire. I’ve spent a quarter of a century as a literary transgender; trying to put myself in a man’s body, and think with a man’s mind, so I can understand them. I would never denigrate the process. Part of education is learning to see through other eyes. But constantly making mental adjustments in order to discount my natural identification with the female in favour of the male is like dressing in drag. The clothes don’t quite fit the contours, no matter how artfully made. If it is such valuable intellectual exercise to imagine things from fresh perspectives why deprive men of the opportunity? Isn’t serving up (white, heterosexual) men a centuries-deep roll call of literary heroes robbing them of the chance to develop the agility and empathy that comes from walking in someone else’s shoes? As it stands, the literary canon does not expand men’s horizons so much as affirm their privileges. It leaves the majority of the world outside, looking in, while weakening its elite inhabitants by cosseting them from challenge. The universe, Thoreau wrote, is wider than our view of it. Literature is the best way to stretch our view. Shrinking our definition of greatness to accommodate only a sliver of human potential is a disservice to books, authors and to most especially to readers.

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2 thoughts on “Men, Women and the Literary Canon

  1. Pingback: Recommended Reading – Essays « Cila Warncke

  2. I read ‘The Murder’ years ago and to be honest, if it wasn’t intended ironically, it’s quite disgusting; people can protest that it only depicts attitudes of that time, but I think it depicted a highly sick attitude even for that time in the couple’s relationship, and I’d no idea it won prizes. I’m dismayed to see on reading sites about one person in a hundred – and she a woman – seems dismayed by the pure misogyny of the tale.

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