The Experience of Being a Woman
On the advent of Women’s day, we wanted to acknowledge the experience of being a woman. Throughout history, men have repeatedly tried to talk about and put forth their perception of the feminine. Because of this, they have repeatedly cast their notions of society and patriarchy on the experience of being a woman. John Berger, the English novelist and art critic, famously said, “men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at”. With this in mind, we wanted to reclaim the discourse around the experience of being a woman, whether it was about dealing with the notions of beauty as prescribed by society, or the narrative of marriage being a means of class mobility, or the awkward and difficult transition from girlhood to womanhood and eventually to old age. The feminist and existentialist philosopher, Simone De Beauvoir famously said, “one is not born but rather becomes a woman”.
Here are our top 3 fiction recommendations that illustrate the beauty and tragedy of being a woman:
The Beggar Maid, 1977
Published in 1977 by Alice Munroe, The Beggar Maid, like all of Munroe’s stories explores the human condition and holds its characters accountable for their actions. It is a story of a young girl, Rose. Through this novel-in-stories, we witness Rose’s transition from a girl to a woman, the awkwardness and the excitement of it. Every story, which acts like a chapter, explores the different stages of her life. As the title suggests, the stories also briefly touch upon class conflict. Rose, who comes from a poor family, marries Patrick, someone who comes from a wealthy family. They meet as students and he falls violently in love with her. He fetishizes her poverty and jokingly refers to as ‘the beggar maid’, after Edward Burne’s famous painting of King Cophetua who falls in love with a beggar.
“This was disgrace, this was beggary. But what harm in that, we say to ourselves at such moments, what harm in anything, the worse the better, as we ride the cold wave of greed, or greedy assent.”
The Woman Destroyed, 1967
Simone de Beauvoir
Written by the French existentialist author, The Woman Destroyed was published in 1967. It is a collection of three stories about three different women, all past their youth, all facing unexpected crises – an undoing within their familial life. Beauvoir’s remarkable insights into the lives and tragedies of women make for an extremely compelling reading. The themes of loneliness, rage, despair, and meaninglessness flow through all the stories and are central to her characters. Beauvoir recognises the notion of the hysterical woman, she chooses to dismantle and reclaim it through her stories. Her characters are unloved and unwanted. The characters struggle to find a lack of purpose after they are no longer required by their children or husband. In a novel that seamlessly weaves together existentialism and feminism, Beauvoir questions patriarchal beliefs and the absurdity of human existence.
“My life was hurrying, racing tragically toward its end. And yet at the same time it was dripping so slowly, so very slowly now, hour by hour, minute by minute. One always has to wait until the sugar melts, the memory dies, the wound scars over, the sun sets, the unhappiness lifts and fades away.”
The Bluest Eye, 1970
This brilliant first novel, published in 1970, marked the debut of one of the greatest writers, Toni Morrison. The novel, which is set in Ohio, is the story of a tortured young black girl, Pecola, who is insecure about her looks and is often teased about her hair, dark skin, and called ugly. As a young 11-year-old, she equates beauty with white features like fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Throughout the story, she pines to be beautiful in a conventional sense, yearning for blue eyes, thinking that they will make her look beautiful. Morrison uses structural techniques, like the lack of punctuations or spacing, to bring forth the differences in the experiences of her characters. With a devastating narrative, filled with fear and loneliness, Morrison brings forth the longing of a child’s heart. The Bluest Eyes is a powerful story and a significant work in American fiction.
“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.”