A new sort of woman has appeared in the fiction of the past decade: not the feminist’s woman, with whom she has some qualities in common, but something more idiosyncratic, more a product of the literary than the political imagination. One might say that in the new woman’s politics, she herself is the candidate. There is about her an air of nomination or election.
Though women have traditionally minded the house or at least provided a fixed point or bearing for men’s affections, the new woman suggests constant motion. A few years ago there was a novel about a woman who set off with her young daughter and a pushcart, like a picaresque hero. In her novel Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson says about her heroine Sylvie that “every story she told had to do with a train or bus station.” Sylvie seldom removes her coat in the house, as if she is always on the verge of leaving. She is so indisposed to domesticity that she sometimes sleeps in her car.
In a story by Raymond Carver, it is the husband, not the wife, who is left to grieve over a house full of furniture. Unlike E. E. Cummings’s Cambridge ladies, the new woman does not live in a furnished soul. A Susan Sontag character says, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” In a Laurie Colwin story, a man’s wife spends all her spare time swimming, as if to say that she is in the swim and he is not. “The Lone Pilgrim,” the title of Laurie Colwin’s last book, evokes the new woman.
It was sentimentality, among other things, that persuaded women to stay at home, but the new woman is not sentimental. As a Carol Emshwiller character says, “We really must learn to tell the difference between love and art.” A woman in a recent novel turns to her lover and asks, “What are you being so sincere about?” And in Nancy Hayfield’s Cleaning House, a young wife says of her first illicit lover that her feeling for him is like “the feeling when I pull into someone’s driveway just to turn around.”
The new woman is no longer a repository for tradition and nostalgia. Like the narrator in Susan Sontag’s story “Unguided Tour,” she thinks that devotion to the past is “just one of the more disastrous forms of unrequited love.” She’s no longer the carrier, the Typhoid Mary of continuity. As Miss Sontag suggests, she is a tourist now in the emotional landscape too. Like Joy William’s heroine in “State of Grace,” she might say, “I’m taking time off and I may never take it on again.”
The new woman is something of a witch, if we use the word in its benign connotation, as Erica Jong does in her new book on witches. The new woman’s otherness is so intense, it goes so far beyond sexuality, that she appears to men as a sorceress. She has the charisma of the person who doesn’t care. Miss Sontag has her say, “I don’t want to satisfy my desire. I want to exasperate it.” Such a woman may agree with Simone Weil that “indignation is the purest form of love.” When she does satisfy her desire, the new woman may, like the witch, sleep with the devil, who in most men’s opinion is someone other than himself.
When Frances Trollope visited Niagara Falls, she would not express her opinion of it because, she said, it was beyond the compass of a gentlewoman’s vocabulary. But there is nothing about which the new woman will not express an opinion. In fact, articulateness is her favorite form of attack or defense. Just as an unprecedented number of women are becoming lawyers in real life, women in fiction are learning to indict and prosecute their men. As Joy Williams says of her heroine and her lover, “She has taken away his energy and replaced it with premonition.”
The new woman shares certain characteristics with the latest innovations in art as they are described by Christopher Butler in After the Wake. Like a sculptor quoted by him, she wants “to get rid of any compositional effect,” refuses to fit into any scheme of things. In the manner of certain recent composers, she denies any “implicative harmonic relationship” with men, will not make beautiful music with them, but prefers instead the phenomenological investigation of her own processes. To appreciate this new woman, men must learn to forge an aesthetic of frustration, make do with a provocative discomfort, substitute conceptual speculation for romantic or erotic daydreaming. In Mr. Butler’s terms, the new woman’s suitors must cultivate a taste for the tensions of blocked inference, must renounce the tragic sense of life, their traditional source of pathos, in favor of the “revolutionary pantomime.”
Above all, the new woman is no longer thrifty, a quality that has always been assumed, through some Freudian convolution, to belong to women, as if thrift were the reclaimed chastity of the housewife, or a kind of negative voluptuousness. Though women have generally been cast in the role of bookkeeper, accounting for every moral and emotional penny, the new woman is profligate, promiscuous with gestures, a wild spender. It no longer suits her, as the wife says in Herbert Gold’s He/She, to be “married so tight.” She has broken the piggy bank, gone on a shopping spree, and no one knows what she will buy. 🏠