Free Women 3

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‘Not as many as before,’ he said. ‘Alas, I must confess it. Of course I do pretty well, in spite of ups and downs, but I do have to take pretty good care of myself.’

‘Perhaps you should find a permanent rich protector very soon.’

‘Oh my dear,’ he exclaimed, with a little writhing movement of the hips that was quite unconscious, ‘you can’t imagine that I haven’t tried?’

‘I didn’t realize that the market was so badly over-supplied,’ said Anna, speaking out of her disgust, and already ashamed of doing so before the words were out. Good Lord! she thought, to be born a Ronnie! to be born like that — I complain about the difficulties of being my kind of woman, but good Lord! — I might have been born a Ronnie.

He gave her a quick frank look full of hatred. He hesitated, an impulse was too strong for him, and he said: ‘I think after all that I do prefer your lotion to mine.’ He had his hand on the bottle, claiming it. He smiled at her sideways, challenging her, hating her openly.

She, smiling, put her hand out and took the bottle: ‘Well you’d better buy some of your own, hadn’t you?’

And now his smile was quick, impertinent, and acknowledged that she had defeated him, that he hated her for it, that he proposed to try again soon. Then the smile faded and was succeeded by the cold haggard fear she had seen earlier. He was telling himself that his spiteful impulses were dangerous, and that he should be placating her, not challenging her.

He excused himself quickly, in a charming placating murmur, said good night, and tripped upstairs to Ivor.

Anna took her bath and went upstairs to see if Janet was settled for the night. The door into the young men’s room stood open. Anna was surprised, knowing that they knew she came upstairs at this time every night to see Janet. Then she realized it was open on purpose. She heard: ‘Fat buttocky cows …’ That was Ivor’s voice, and he added an obscene noise. Then Ronnie’s voice: ‘Sagging sweaty breasts …’ And he made the sound of vomiting.

Anna, furious, was on the point of going forward to quarrel with them. She found herself, instead, shaken, trembling and frightened. She crept downstairs, hoping they had not known she was there. But they now shut their door with a bang, and she heard shouts of laughter — from Ivor; and shrill graceful peals from Ronnie. She got into bed, appalled. At herself. For she saw that the obscene little play that had been prepared for her was nothing more than the night-face of Ronnie’s girlishness, Ivor’s big-dog friendliness, and that she might have deduced it all for herself without waiting to have it demonstrated. She was frightened because she was affected. She sat up in bed in the big dark room, smoking, and felt herself as vulnerable and helpless. She said again: If I cracked up then … The man on the train had shaken her; the two young men upstairs had reduced her to trembling. A week ago, coming home late from the theatre, a man had exposed himself on a dark street corner. Instead of ignoring it, she had found herself shrinking inwardly, as if it had been a personal attack on Anna — she had felt as if she, Anna, had been menaced by it. Yet, looking back only a short time, she saw Anna who walked through the hazards and ugliness of the big city unafraid and immune. Now it seemed as if the ugliness had come close and stood so near to her she might collapse, screaming.

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  1. Lenelle Moïse December 7th, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    “He gave her a quick frank look full of hatred…and he said: ‘I think after all that I do prefer your lotion to mine.’ He had his hand on the bottle, claiming it. He smiled at her sideways, challenging her, hating her openly.”

    Reading this, I keep thinking about how one of the functions of literature is to create (and perpetuate) sociopolitical paradigms. We read not only to see ourselves reflected in the text, but to observe how a character responds to situations that we may encounter in our nose-out-of-the-book lives. Personally–halfway through the book–I struggle to identify with Lessing’s Anna so am not likely to behave as she does. But certainly she is someone’s possible self? Certainly she was someone’s mirror/role model? This set up–that gay men hate and/or envy and/or are a threat to heterosexual women–is such a cliche! What books influenced this writing? How did this writing influence other books?

    Why weren’t the Second Wave feminist and LGBTQ rights movements more collaborative? Are we convinced yet that women and gay men can be allies? Or do sad scenes like this (still) resonate with some?

    1. Nona Willis Aronowitz December 8th, 2008 at 9:39 pm

      Was it a cliche at the time of this writing? Something tells me no. The relationship most recently depicted in pop culture between straight women and gay men is a sort of mixed message–that they are great friends but can really mess up your love life (like Will & Grace, or that movie with Madonna and whats-his-name). Plus, heterosexual women (particularly feminists) still seem to resent gay men for having control over industries courting and manipulating women (fashion, media). The dynamic described in these pages is a little more blatant than what’s played out today, but there still exists this undercurrent of competition and animosity between the two groups.

      1. Lenelle Moïse December 9th, 2008 at 9:52 am

        Oh my goodness, that movie with Madonna and Rupert Everett?! “Next Best Thing.” Oy! I don’t know, Nona. I wonder if Oscar Wilde ever wrote about the subject?

  2. Laura Kipnis December 9th, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Are we saying that there isn’t often a fair amount of misogyny among gay men? It seems to me it’s both a stereotype AND a social observation–the Ronnie character, the cattiness toward women. One of the problems with running literature through the socio-political lens or asking it to provide progressive paradigms is that you (frequently) end up with crappy art forms of the positive-images or heroic socialist realism variety. I’m more interested in the thrill of uncomfortable truths, even when unprogressive.

    1. Naomi Alderman December 9th, 2008 at 3:27 pm

      Yes, of course Laura you’re right. There’s often misogyny among men, and gay men aren’t excluded from that. (Come to think of it there’s often misogyny among *people*.) I do wonder how much of this is stereotyping, how much is a representation of a dynamic that existed at the time, exacerbated by the legal and social framework, and how much is just a representation of the fact that people can be really hideously unpleasant to one another.

      Someone - was it Laura? - said that Anna’s homophobia can be read as a by-product of her experiences as a woman: the dog bites the cat, the cat bites the rat. She’s oppressed and demeaned by the world, she finds someone else to oppress and demean. Can we see Ronnie and Ivor in the same way? The world is vile to them, but they can also be vile to Anna because she too isn’t ‘correct’, simply because she is a woman.

      Simply from my own world, the fact that Jews have been persecuted hasn’t meant that the Jewish world is marvellously sympathetic toward gay people or indeed toward women. Oppressed peoples unfortunately often don’t band together. Instead they make themselves feel better by trying to hurt one another, aping those who oppress them.

      1. Lenelle Moïse December 10th, 2008 at 4:04 am

        I wrestle with this familiar question all the time: What is the function of the artist in society–to reflect culture, to critique culture, to create culture , to transcend culture, or to risk solidly expressing oneself in one’s moment in time? (I never ask myself this question when I am in the middle of writing/creating, of course. If I did, I’d never get anything done! But it comes up for me when I am trying make sense of a text.) I want to believe it is possible to do all of the above–if not all at the same time–with skill, complexity, compassion and aesthetic merit. Heros are flawed, process is illuminating, progress is elusive and the truth can be ugly, yes…Is it fundamentally true that our differences make us want to obliterate each other? I hope not.

        I see Anna deeply yearning for a male ally. I see potential allies in this scene, dissing and dodging each other–for what? I see our heroine feeling powerless and seeking power at a gay man’s expense. And vice versa, as Naomi points out. I see Anna and Ronnie hurting each other simply because they are near each other and, maybe because–ironically, secretly–they trust each other? I see myself reading TGN and often feeling frustrated, super sad and disappointed. I worry sometimes but I have faith that Lessing wants me to see and feel these things.

      2. Naomi Alderman December 10th, 2008 at 5:10 am

        Oh yes, Lenelle, I wrestle with those questions too. And sometimes even when I’m writing, which makes it awkward…

        The processes by which art and life feed-back on one another are so complex, and each element can be both justified and condemned.

        If we present the bald truth in art, surely it’s worthwhile for society to see itself reflected? But this is the argument about showing terrible violence on television. The programme-makers can say “this happens, it really happens, we should show it,” but some would say “ah, but by showing it you’re normalising violence, and so exacerbating it.”

        If we present some sort of utopian vision in art, surely it’s worthwhile to think about how society could be better? But then we can be criticised on the grounds that we’re no longer being “realistic”, that our art has no relevance.

        If we criticise what’s happening in society, we risk being seen as ‘negative’ by people who say that art is ‘there to entertain.’ (And indeed I often just want to be entertained by art.) If we fail to criticise, we are panderers.

        None of which is to say that I think artists deserve special sympathy! It’s a wonderful, complex, never-ending series of conundrums to devote one’s life to.

      3. Harriet Rubin December 10th, 2008 at 9:18 am

        Yes, misogyny happens, even and especially among women. The Washington Post journalist who upbraided Hillary Clinton for showing three centimeters of cleavage during the recent political campaign was a woman. But to me, what Lessing captures so frighteningly well here is how a few trivial and cliched comments like Ronnie’s and Ivor’s unnerve Anna so thoroughly that she feels doomed and acts vindictively, telling Ivor that Ronnie has to leave. Why can’t Anna draw on some of her artfulness as a writer and tell herself a different story about these men’s childishness and spare them?

        I think you have to look to the writings of saints (even secular saints) to find people who don’t pass along slights and worse forms of violence. I think of Simone Weil who tried to let the blows stop with her, but she couldn’t survive not passing on the horrors she saw and felt.

      4. Laura Kipnis December 10th, 2008 at 6:55 pm

        But is it Anna’s breasts he’s calling sweaty and sagging? That’s how I read it. You have Ivor and Ronnie trying to pass off a sense of bodily shame onto Anna, and her refusing to be shamed or see it as trivial–it makes her angry. Her kicking them out seems more like an act of self-defense than vindictiveness. At the same time, she keeps putting her body on the line with these various “real” (straight) men, who are equally callous about her attractiveness or appeal, which she seems far less perturbed by.

      5. Naomi Alderman December 11th, 2008 at 3:32 pm

        Hmm. I read it as an attack on women in general, all ‘fat buttocky cows’.

        I was reminded of this on UK p397, where Julia recounts the story of the man who was impotent with her, and then said ‘You’re a castrating woman, I thought you were from the moment I saw you.’

        I think this is the same emotion, the same response. Julia’s actor blames her for his not being able to get an erection. Ivor and Ronnie are blaming all women for their not being attracted to them. (Whether or not this is a portrayal built on prejudice, I think this is what’s going on in the novel.)

        And you’re exactly right, both Ella/Anna and Julia/Molly keep on accepting that blame. On UK 404, Julia says: “I was blaming myself — of course, we always do, isn’t it odd, the way we positively fall over ourselves to blame ourselves for everything?” This too feels horribly familiar and modern.