Nathalie Heinich, Etats de Femmes (Fr. 1996)

Does anyone know if you can create a flowchart in a blog post? I don’t, but I’m not very talented with all the WordPress options. Anyway, I had a flowchart in mind to write a review of this book, because it is all about structure and states. But when I actually tried to design one on a piece of paper, it ended in a mess. But bear with me for that long post, it’s worth it.

Having never properly studied structuralism (it’s supposed to be very French, but I somehow escaped this course), I basically took in that it was about structures, how everything in society is structured in permanent models. This book’s ambition is to map out the structures in classic and modern novels (but mostly 19C and pre-WWII 20C) defining the role of women – so I guess its approach must be structuralist, if I’m not mistaken (even though it doesn’t say so). Nathalie Heinich looks for patterns, for typical figures in both plots and characters, and I must say that it is quite convincing and looks quite complete an overview (even though it can’t describe every existing novel featuring women).

Women in novels are defined by a number of states (“états” in French) and how they move from one state (or perhaps better, stage) to the next depends on their relation to men and sex. The very first stage is the girl status, even before she enters the sexual world. Few novels keep her in that state because it’s supposed to be boring. Writers seem to consider that the plot is worth telling only when a girl becomes aware of her sex and looks for a man. Otherwise, the traditional literary figures at this stage are nymphs, amazons, boarding school girls “depraved” toward lesbian relationships, wild girls preferring nature to the world, nuns preferring God to the world, or heroic virgins, but often the plot arch condemn them to tragedy.

If the girl enters the sexualized world, she will look for a man and expect marriage, which depends on  family ties, of money, of education, beauty and virtue. Of course if she lacks one thing in that perfect combination, her chances get worse. And all her assets may be ruined if her virtue is suspected, which means every time she’s beautiful enough to arouse men’s interest. There are many novels on this stage of womanhood that have happy ending (Austen springs to mind, but also the 18C Evelina by Frances Burney with deus ex machina that save the day). But there are also a great number of cautionary tales of tragedies about abandoned girls who have not been able to resist to sex before marriage (either because they have been tricked, or raped, or simply weak – see Thomas Hardy’s Tess).

If these girls escape death at that stage, novels rarely let them live as positive heroines. They become illegitimate women (the Second), from kept mistresses to “demi-mondaine”, from bohemian concubine to prostitutes, following a descending pecking order of dependency, debauchery and social acceptance. Nana of Zola’s fame, Odette de Crécy by Proust and various other tragic figures like Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias or Balzac’s Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans. Their only possible narrative arch when they are nice is to be redeemed by love, but because of their shady past, it’s mostly impossible and they die trying or fail over and over again.

If (virgin) girls get married, they may access the envied status of First Wife (legitimate, mistress of the house, mother of the master’s children). This is the happy ending of many novels, but as the start of a plot, it soon gets boring, unless some difficulty arises, like: marrying the wrong man, or marrying someone without love. Novels on the early stages of marriage often question the identity of the bride, as she prepares to become someone else. Her identity becomes her husband’s and his family’s. She may have to renounce her own tastes – her own being. So in some novels, the unhappily married wife can’t really accept all this and she gets a lover. In many classical novels, like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, this transgression allows her to keep or regain her own identity, but at a very high cost: that of social acceptance, and often at the cost of losing her children – or her life.

But even if she remains faithful, the legitimate wife’s power is always fragile: she may have a rival in a kept mistress (move back 2 squares in this Monopoly game), or she may have to face the ghost of a previous wife (in the romantic plot involving widowers, like Jane Eyre, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca). Girls who virtuously marry widowers settle for the second best, and are typically women who lacked one or two elements of success in the marriage “marketplace” (either beauty or money, or perhaps they were deemed too “intellectual”). Heinich develops at length the triangle between the widower, his deceased first wife and the new one. She makes parallels with the Oedipus complex (and what Freud described as the Electra complex), so that the widower very often takes the father’s place.

If the woman doesn’t fit into the category of the First (wife) or the Second (mistress/ prostitute), then she falls back into the Third woman category, who is not allowed sex or marriage. She may be the widow, the governess, or the old maid, or the bluestocking. Either option is not enviable and ends up a bit ridicule, or is suspected to fall into depravity. So definitively the virtuous way is narrow indeed for women in literature.

The last few chapters tried to accommodate these stages with contemporary literature (post WW2), but they were not as interesting. It made me want to read some Balzac or Zola again, which is no mean feat! It made a very valuable addition in my reading list for the Women Unbound Challenge.


One thought on “Nathalie Heinich, Etats de Femmes (Fr. 1996)

  1. Interesting sounding book. I don’t think you can create a flowchart in WordPress so your image scan works just fine. I like seeing all the scribbles it is much more personable and indicative of your thinking 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.