I realize it’s Britainand they do things differently over there, but I found myself intrigued by a piece from The Guardian in which the author Teju Cole (Open City) selects his Top Ten novels of solitude. Like his Open City narrator, Julius, who wanders a post 9/11 New York observing his surroundings, Cole’s choices include books whose characters who live in one way or another beneath a kind of emotional radar screen. What struck me was that of his ten choices, only two of the authors were women (Lydia Davis and Marguerite Yourcenar) and Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian features a male protagonist.
What was even more interesting than Cole’s list were the pages of comments that followed. Everybody who wrote weighed in with their choices for best novels of solitude. So the list grew exponentially from Cole’s original ten to over 75 books. I like to think of myself as a fairly well-read person, but I was out of my league. Probably half of the books I had never heard of and many more than that I had never read—nor did this list entice me to want to, I have to admit.
And as with Cole’s picks, the vast majority of these books were written by male authors. The exceptions were Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Carson McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Café, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea—whose protagonist, as with Yourcenar, is male—and two authors I hadn’t heard of.
Given the fact that historically there are more male writers than female, I nonetheless began to wonder if the idea of a novel of women’s solitude are a far rarer breed than the prototypical Underground Man. I was discussing this with a friend of mine—a man—and he countered that of course there were books about women’s solitude, though the only one he could think of was The Awakening and the only other author than Kate Chopin was Virginia Woolf.
I conceded Woolf (in large part because I’ve read so little of her). But The Awakening is about wanting to escape the society which Edna Pontillier finds so stultifying. Her suicide is a way of slipping through the safety net of family and friends.
In women’s novels or novels written about women, I think it is the negotiation of social roles and mores that drives most plots, with the characters caught in a maelstrom of expectations and obligations. And so there is very nearly a genre of the suicidal main female character unable to pull herself sufficiently away from the forces that grind her down and keep her from full differentiation in society.
For example, Edna Pontillier did not have the luxury to be disconnected, to be an observer. She had a role to play and the only escape from it was the sea. In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Barth’s own death is occasioned by the powerlessness she feels in a society where marriage and wealth are the barometers of success.
Anna Karenina has both, as well as children and an elaborate social life but she, like Emma Bovary, fail to find fulfillment in riches and family ties.
Where there is no suicide there may still be death: Tess of Tess of the d’Urbervilles is driven by obligation and penury and denied love, leading her to murder and then to her subsequent execution.
In fact, much of literature by or about women features the struggle to manage financially. Many characters find wealth in marriage but fail to find happiness; others struggle to make ends meet in the absence of a husband or within a failed marriage. And the range of jobs available to women was severely restricted by the expectations placed upon them. For every rich, bored wife there are characters toiling at menial and low-paying jobs—Carrie Meeber in the shoe factory, Tess in the dairy, Lily in the milliner shop.
It seems to me there are few novels in which women might opt for a kind of voluntary isolation similar to the Invisible Man or the Underground Man. Instead it is far more common for female protagonists to struggle to find their place amidst a obstacle course of social mores—Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is as restricted in her choices as Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, is as Jean Rhys portrays her in Wide Sargasso Sea.
It’s as if that option—of a willing or even unwilling—alienation can only be accomplished through madness, estrangement from the society that entraps them. It’s solitude through mental instability we encounter when we come to hear Bertha raging in Rochester’s attic, see the narrator peeling strips from the wall in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and view the world through Eleanor Vance’s troubled eyes in Shirley Jackson (herself a troubled woman) in her terrifying novel, The Haunting of Hill House.