The Crux of it All
Following the notion that feminism will never separate itself from motherhood, no matter how polarized the two factors seem to be, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novel, The Crux, focuses entirely on women's biological responsibility to motherhood. In it, Gilman proclaims that it is a woman's duty to ensure well-being of her future children in order to preserve the purity of society. By juxtaposing two opposing arguments in the motherhood versus feminism debate -- the majority idea that a woman's sole duty is to marry and produce children, and her belief that a woman has a biological duty to society to produce healthy children -- the story of Vivian Lane is used as a moral lesson to women and young girls in search of love.
Early in the novel is it made clear that Vivian's interests lie elsewhere. Instead of concentrating on marriage as her parents wish -- "A girl's place is at home… 'till she marries," her mother scolds; and "Marriage is a woman's duty," her father plainly states -- Vivian desires to further her education in college and admires those women who have made a life for themselves without the aid of men. In particular is Jane Bellair, a doctor whose services are often looked down upon simply because she is a woman. Vivian's one encounter with love is with Morton Elder, the brother of her best friend, who leaves their small home town after securing Vivan's desire for him. Soon thereafter, Vivian leaves town herself, accompanying Dr. Bellair to Colorado for the purpose of running a boarding house for men. It is there, nine years later, that Vivian reunites with Morton and finds herself forced to deal with her growing love for him.
Though the novel is thought of as one of the important early feminist works, I'm not entirely convinced that The Crux is the bastion of feminist progress as it is believed to be. In Gilman's effort to promote the purpose of a woman's existence beyond that of serving men, she is careful not to stray too far from that course. It's ironic that in leaving home on her own, Vivian, and the single women who accompany her to Colorado, do not make out their own careers, but pass their days by keeping house and caring for men. Even in their independence they cannot but act as wives and mothers. Additionally, it seems that each character is in pursuit of a male love interest. While not unrealistic or insulting in itself, it is far from contributive for those woman to suddenly feel complete once that man is found. Even Mrs. Pettigrew, Vivian's stodgy grandmother, ends the novel in the arms of a Mr. Elmer Skee.
Once Morton proposes marriage and Vivian accepts, Dr. Bellair sets herself on the task of ending the engagement on the strength of one bit of knowledge: Morton has both syphilis and gonorrhea. Because Vivian would never be able to have healthy children with Morton, the marriage would be pointless and Vivian would be blatantly ignoring her womanly duty to society to produce healthy, upstanding citizens. Though it is inherent to Vivian's character to discourage love -- "Vivian sat for a few moments, listening patiently while [Morton] talked of his discouragements, his hopes, his wishes to succeed in life, to be worthy of her; but when the personal note sounded, when he tried to take her hand in the semi-darkness, then her New England conscience sounded also, and she rose to her feet and left him." -- it is heartbreaking to her that, after pledging herself to Morton, she is expected to break that promise. Vivian does finally break off the engagement, stating that she was not in full knowledge of her fiancée's health, and devotes herself to teaching, upholding her independence, and forgetting Morton. And though Vivian puts aside her love for Morton in order to have children, she does find her happiness in a man, another doctor at the boarding house.
A particular weakness in the novel is Dr. Bellair, who acts as the group's mother hen and encourages Vivian in very incongruous ways. At once she admonishes Vivian to "…remember that you are not a child! You are twenty-five years old. You are a grown woman, and have as much right to decide for yourself as a grown man." Yet as soon she suspects Vivian's engagement to Morton, she convinces the girl that there is no choice but to end the liaison. What makes this particularly pointed is that Dr. Bellair leads her life independently not necessarily out of choice, but because she found that her husband had the same diseases, thus preventing her from becoming the mother she desired to be. Because Dr. Bellair's lifestyle is not chosen by her, but chosen for her, one might question the integrity of her advice on the matter.
However, in one aspect Gilman's novel does serve its purpose, that is, to make women aware of these sexual diseases that were often kept taboo. It is obvious throughout the story that Gilman believed women had a choice in whom and when they could marry. Vivian and her cohorts may have ended up married, but it was within their own time frame and without their parents' direct control. Though it is not as life-damaging as it once was, girls' knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases remains an issue today. Education, no matter how it is used to better oneself, cannot be looked down upon, which makes The Crux not necessarily the next plane of feminist progress, but at least a large step in the right direction.
The Crux by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Duke University Press