Writing a Suitable Woman: The End of the Novel of Female Despair
I wanted to create a character that did not have to die for her passions. This character would possess all the things that I admire in a woman of feminine, intelligent impulse and she would be a character who I hoped I could turn to if ever I was in moral doubt or crisis. She would be a complex character with a rich inner life, sensitive, centered, creative, a character whom I imagined might be a role model for my readers, since when I was coming of age characters in novels were my models to know what the possibilities might be for women’s lives. We live in a time where women no longer need to define themselves through the men they marry or don’t marry. Unlike the female heroines in novels by Jane Austen or the Brontës, or the destitute heroines of Jean Rhys and Edith Wharton’s novels forced to live off the gifts of married suitors, contemporary women lead independent, fulfilled lives. Yet, we still live in a society where women fall in love, marry, and have children and are struck by the irrational arrow of erotic desire. What would define the novel of love, marriage and erotic desire today? What would that heroine look like? What would happen today if a woman had to choose between responsibility and desire? How would she negotiate the conflicting worlds? What would her alternatives be? Certainly she could divorce or separate, yet what would comprise her inner moral struggle?
When I was a young reader the models in literature for women protagonists who struggled between passion and domestic responsibility were Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Edna Pontellier (in The Awakening), and Lily Bart (in The House of Mirth). There were others but these tragic heroines were the ones that left an impression. Passion was terminal; female protagonists swept up in love affairs ended up killing themselves. The message was that abundance of feeling led to tragedy. If women in novels were not killed off by their creator, they struggled like Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady or Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch to define themselves against erotic desire and the confines of marriage. I wanted to create a contemporary heroine with deep emotional intelligence and intensity who could find a way to balance passion and selfhood. We live in a time when adultery seems commonplace, certainly not a crime that would allow a woman to lose her social standing, her children. And yet, internally what are the risks? Are they any less? Would my character ultimately transgress? I was determined to create a character that struggles with her sense of morality but ultimately does not have to relinquish her sense of self. What would such a character look and feel like?
The Life Room began, along with the conceit of creating an esteemed, empathetic female character, with a single question: What is the nature of erotic desire that it can potentially devastate a woman’s life? When Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary fell into the throes of all consuming love, their worlds crumbled. Decades have passed since those novels were written and yet have the inner lives of women plunged into this moral struggle changed? To dramatize this exploration, I had to conceive of characters that would be a foil for my heroine and I had to also give my heroine a vocation where she could explore her sense of selfhood independent of another. I decided my character should be a professor at Columbia and a wife and a mother and that she would experience her life as being one way at the onset of the novel and later discover that it was otherwise. Where were the models in literature for a wife and mother who held her domestic life dear but was also a creative, capable, intelligent woman longing for passion outside the bounds of marriage? I didn’t know that kind of woman. I had not seen her in literature. The women in literature who dared to seek more outside the confines of marriage like Edna Pontileer or Lilly Bart ended up dead. I decided that in order to test my character’s moral range, someone for whom she shared an unrealized desire would reappear and wreak havoc upon her domestic life. The other thing I decided was that my book was going to be an interior exploration—I wanted to know this woman inside and out—and that the novel would be willfully internal. In other words, that I would chart my character’s internal progression and that part of that charting would also involve her having to look back as well as forward.
I decided that the plot of my novel would be the internal development of my character, Eleanor Cahn, and that by thrusting a roadblock into her path I would be creating “plot.”
Not only would I have to throw a roadblock in my character’s path to test her, I would also have to give her a vocation, a raison d’être worthy of respect. My idea was that she would be an academic going to Paris to present a paper on Anna Karenina, and that once she embarked on her journey, she would begin to worry about the authenticity of her thesis. In other words, that she felt one way about Anna Karenina as a moral character initially but once she embarked on her journey away from home and her sense of morality was questioned, her vision was altered. In this sense I was giving her an active vocation: she was a writer grappling with “subjective” truth and that she would only have her own moral barometer as her guide to figure out in Henry James’s words in the preface to Portrait of a Lady “what she would do.” The act of creation would become a secondary theme in my novel and the act of transcendence through creation would provide a form of sustenance to shield my character from the plight of the tragic heroines I have already named. In this way, she would be equal to male heroes in the novels I grew up on because she would have a vocation in which to develop a sense of self apart from her domestic life.
The other thing I hoped for was not to bore myself—and hence the reader—in my undertaking so I had to make sure my characters were interesting and larger than life. That I would be forever interested in them, that they would continue to surprise me, to continue to reveal themselves to me, then hide, then reveal more. That I would get to know them as I got to know real people and that I would love them for their flaws and their strengths and would not cast judgment upon them.
I wanted good things for them, especially for Eleanor who had become my doppelganger, my other. Poor Eleanor. I would give her things I didn’t have, ways of coping I wish I could discover. I would give her passion and patience and boldness. I would let her wander in her imagination, flirt with the idea of the possibility of a lover, of the possibility of having both lover, and husband and children, and not pull her back to reality until she was good and ready. I would let her almost transgress and experience the pain and joy of her temptations. I would test her motive. Let her question what she really wanted and in doing so her raison d’être for getting out of bed each morning.
I used memory as a device. I put Eleanor in a situation in the present that would force her to swim back to the past and to reconnect with her lost self and that self that was tangled up with her three erotic lovers from the past. In a sense I was telling five stories, the story of Eleanor and her elusive father and melancholy mother; the story of her first love ethereal William whom she could never fully connect with; her seduction by Adam, a narcissistic painter she modeled for in graduate school who initiated her into ‘the life room,’ the studio where the painter paints from life; her elusive relationship with Stephen, a journalist and struggling novelist who unexpectedly turns up in her present life and turns it upside down; and the tender story of Eleanor and her husband and two boys who seem to float apart from this turmoil. These stories created their own strange chronology, but they compelled me. I wanted to discover what made Eleanor tick. What drew her to William? He was disturbed, unusual; he was deeply attached to nature, birds and animals. She was drawn to something poetic about him. He too needed a vocation, and so I engaged him in building a totemic stone wall and that wall eventually pushed him away from her. Adam, the painter taught her about a life committed to art. Stephen, the wayward journalist, showed her what happens when we can’t escape our pasts. And Michael, Eleanor’s practical and loyal husband, a heart surgeon, taught her about the erratic nature of the heart, both literally and metaphorically. I allowed Eleanor’s selfhood to form against these relationships, for her to test who she was, what she felt, her sense of morality against the actions of others and then against her own actions. I was uplifted when I discovered she could be selfish and wanting, generous and withholding, inquisitive and frustrated. I took her on a journey—oddly I thought of Dickens The Christmas Carol, and how Marley visits Scrooge and takes him through the journey of his past. I thought of Paradise Lost and temptation, and the story of Adam and Eve and the snake. I also thought of Henry James and Portrait of a Lady and how each one of Isabel’s suitors defined her by the kind of life they held against her own, and Keats and his concepts of romantic love. And since my character Eleanor Cahn was a professor of literature, the themes of the great novels and poems she loved and taught became leitmotifs, back stories in her thinking that informed her journey and my novel of her interior life. Stories do not get written in a vacuum; they are shaped by literary history, the history of what the author has read and thought about and learned from. Perhaps the definition of what we mean by “literary fiction,” is fiction that is not written simply to entertain, but to get at something deeper about the human journey and I hoped that these other texts would help to give weight and depth to my story, and my character.
I wrote out all my characters and their lives and thoughts and histories. Whenever I felt I had departed too much in digression, I put the story back on track again, brought Eleanor back to the present. And this became my arbitrary structure for the novel.
The present story is about Eleanor’s life with her family, her awakening on her trip to Paris to present a paper on Anna Karenina, her meeting with Stephen that ignites her desire, and her struggle between passion and responsibility on her return home. Finally the denouement, a wonderful French word which means "unknotting" or "unwinding" of the main dramatic complications in a work. The denouement dogged me during the years I devoted to creating my character and her story. How would I end my story? Would Eleanor run off with Stephen, would she stay in her marriage, would she leave her husband, would she lose both her husband and her children? It was the unknowing that kept me interested and it was in the stages of revision when I worked hardest to complicate her unknowing, so that her love for her family and for her own private desires were nearly equal that I created the internal suspense of my work. And as I was writing out the story of Eleanor and the characters from her erotic past who had shaped her, I also discovered that I was writing out the story of her passions and vocation which were, as I said earlier, for her art and literature. That while she was stifled in her marriage, she was also stifled by the confines of her own moral ideals, and that the two were intertwined. When Stephen entered her life and stirred the pot, her ideas on morality she was exploring in her academic studies were also stirred, and by the end of the novel when Eleanor’s entire inner universe is altered, she truly surprised me. Without my knowing it she had grown in strength. She had grown to know herself, and to discover who she was, and who she was, pit against the man she was in love with, was ultimately strong enough to sustain her through the trails of passion. I had created a character who I could look up to—an unconventional woman leading a conventional life, who would not throw one life away for the promise of another. I released her from her spiritual and moral crisis. She was bereft but she was able to obtain transcendence through creation. She would not be cast out alone in a morphine-induced stupor. She would not be devoured by fierce waves or trampled by a train. She could survive great passion and be bleeding yet whole.
Jill Bialosky’s novel The Life Room was published in August 2007 with Harcourt. She is the author of a previous novel, House Under Snow, and two books of poetry, Subterranean and The End of Desire. A new collection, Intruder, is forthcoming in the fall of 2008 from Knopf. Her poems and essays appear regularly in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and The Nation. She lives in New York City, where she is an editor at W. W. Norton. Jill Bialosky’s website is http://jillbialosky.com.