SHUT UP & LEAVE ME ALONE
“We tend to think that a deeply ingrained system, such as capitalism, can be resisted only by equal and opposite action,” writes Alexandra Kleeman in her Vanity Fair review of one of 2018’s most talked about novels. “But in a culture based upon striving,” she goes on, “is it possible that it might be more radical for women to opt out?” Her subject, Ottessa Moshfegh’s darkly comic My Year of Rest and Relaxation, follows an unnamed female narrator on her journey to total withdrawal from society.
Kleeman links Moshfegh’s character to the infamous narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), noting their shared experience of confinement while also exploring the tensions between work, idleness, and the female body. Where Gilman’s narrator resists her husband’s orders to rest, Moshfegh’s narrator voluntarily forsakes the world of capitalistic work and productivity for a period of comatose hibernation, exploring “an inherent chasm between body and mind, between physical demands and societal rules” — specifically, those meant for women.
In the century that stands between these two narratives the physical restrictions on many women have been lifted, but the psychological ones linger and, in some ways, have even deepened. With each step toward gender equality, women find a new web of paradoxical challenges. As technological advances make work more efficient and time more flexible, the expectations for female labor, both domestic and professional, increase drastically. In the early twentieth century, for instance, advertisers rejoiced in the development of the electric washing machine, letting their customers know that technology had finally relieved overworked, exhausted housewives (as well as domestic workers) from the loathsome task of hand-washing laundry with a washboard or a dolly stick. Consequently, now that women had such an abundance of “free” time, expectations for productivity and efficiency in that excess time followed. At last, the housewife of the early twentieth century was released — somewhat — from the demands of her house, and she had more time to cook, tend to children, sew clothing, clean the house, and perhaps even learn French.
As technological advances make work more efficient and time more flexible, the expectations for female labor, both domestic and professional, increase drastically.
In our current state, women have more freedom and opportunities than ever before. In turn, women face the consequences of astronomical and unrealistic expectations. Women are encouraged to “do it all” and “have it all” and be grateful for how far the feminist movement has progressed. The social expectation for a woman now is to achieve higher, earn more, and be the best, all with a smile on her face. We question the woman who seems just average, label her as lazy, judge her for not making the most of the waves of feminists before her. New century, new modes of oppression — self-created and otherwise.
Despite these challenges, women have consistently discovered avenues for opposition against societal rules and gender norms. Whether the heroine is struggling with postpartum symptoms in the nineteenth century or facing the pressures of being a professional young woman in the new millennium, “The Yellow Wallpaper” and My Year of Rest and Relaxation both express the female resistance to societal oppression. Gilman’s narrator uses her forced seclusion to work on a journal without permission and takes ownership of her thoughts and her own story. Her self-possession, evident in her resistance to her husband and her need to write, gets her far, but only so far, given the strictures imposed on her. She devolves into madness, and by the end of the story she is ripping the wallpaper down in a violent frenzy. Moshfegh’s narrator, in contrast, opts out and retreats from the world around her, claiming ownership in a different way. She prevents society from possessing her by taking herself out of the game altogether; however, as a life option, self-erasure and apathy sounds even less appealing than Gilman’s mania.
Both characters complicate the expectations for women by avoiding them in drastically different ways, but the question of how to achieve true subversion remains. In the present time, when many feel the pressure to get a good job, do yoga, have abs, and obtain a thousand Instagram followers, there is an inherent resistance to the go-getter movement. If the predicament that binds Gilman’s character is no longer common, plenty of women may think Moshfegh’s character is onto something. But are the only options either to go mad in a room, combatting the idle mind, or to retreat into a self-induced period of sloth, erasing all traces of self and society?
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In every category of scholarship, academics have created a canon. Women’s lit and women’s history are not exceptions to this rule. Anyone who takes 101 can reference the classic notable women: Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Friedan. It was not until I took a nineteenth-century American Literature course that I considered a unique addition to this canon: Emily Dickinson. While not an obscure figure by any means, Dickinson remains that-one-female-poet-the-average-high-school-English-student-can-name or that-strange-recluse-lady-who-wrote-quirky-poems. She is both an icon in the literary world and a notable woman of American history.
Dickinson remains that-one-female-poet-the-average-high-school-English-student-can-name or that-strange-recluse-lady-who-wrote-quirky-poems.
Outside of Dickinson scholarly circles and the literary realm, the prolific poet, who lived from 1830 to 1886, lacks recognition as a feminist, a rule-breaker, a revolutionary. William Luce’s 1976 play The Belle of Amherst seeks to reveal a more personable version of Dickinson, chatty and lively. While the one-woman show reinforces the significance of Dickinson’s isolation, the play also portrays Dickinson as recognizably human and lonely, rather than unable and unwilling to communicate. Terence Davies’ 2016 film A Quiet Passion exemplifies another attempt to demystify Dickinson’s peculiar life. Cynthia Nixon’s Dickinson appears sharp, energized, even righteous at times. While scholarly and creative examinations of Dickinson illuminate the poet’s mysterious nature as a subject of intrigue, these explorations often fall short in identifying the inherent rebellion in Dickinson’s life and works.
When I find myself facing the question of female self-possession, I always go back to Dickinson’s work. In a 2008 article for The New Yorker, Judith Thurman says Dickinson scholars have suggested that “the poet’s impulse to seek sanctuary in isolation, and the militant’s to seek justice through intervention, should … feel familiar to us.” Although Thurman was referring to Dickinson’s relevance in the 2008 political climate surrounding the presidential election, this sentiment remains salient now. Notorious for being an icon of isolation, Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle highlights the issue of female autonomy that has persisted to the present day. Dickinson resisted social standards for women of the nineteenth century through her privacy while still remaining productive, proving herself as one of the most prolific poets in history by writing nearly 1,800 poems. She was both isolated and working, rejecting the idle mind and the overwhelming demands of the outside world while still drawing inspiration and succor from it when she could. Most significantly, Dickinson demonstrated a path for women to explore creatively — to use isolation, either enforced or voluntary, for self-examination, for self-expression, for art.
In a poem published posthumously in 1890, she famously wrote:
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
Here Dickinson identifies the blurry line between sanity and madness, between social acceptance and rejection. Through her work, she often analyzed the intricate complexities of social pressures and norms. Dickinson understood the rebellious nature of her lifestyle and used it as inspiration, questioning the paradox of being a working woman. This poem pinpoints the female experience under the demands of a patriarchal society: in order to succeed, women must follow social expectations. Dissenters challenge these rules and therefore are written off as insane.
In her analysis of the dilemma of the female writer, Virginia Woolf writes in “A Room of One’s Own” (1929) that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” Woolf echoes Dickinson’s need for the female writer’s possession of body, mind, and space. Whatever one’s relationship with isolation, Dickinson seems to be a defining figure in the quest for female empowerment. Years ahead of her time, she shut the door on society, its corruption, impurities, and suffocation. Instead, Dickinson created a space for herself and her words to flourish, maintaining such a clear picture of the world around her despite her lack of participation therein.
Today, Dickinson’s methodology may seem more appealing than in previous times. We find ourselves utterly polarized by the news, the fake news, the alternative facts. Each time a headline flashes across a screen, we go to our respective corners, doubling down on our opinions, and then, ironically, seek out social media platforms, not to share ideas, but to shout ours louder than everyone else. Somehow the vehicle that was intended to connect us leaves us retreating into our own forms of isolation, whether in the act of turning off CNN alerts to disconnect from the world or unfriending on Facebook that obnoxious loudmouth you used to know in high school.
Despite her isolation, however, Dickinson cultivated a worldview that demonstrated her understanding of society and its mechanisms beyond the limited scope of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her works reflect careful consideration in each word written. Every dash, each vague metaphor, all of the seemingly random capitalizations, demonstrate an authorial intent and the deep meaning behind each editorial choice. Dickinson reveals the value in pensive, careful thought and in crafting short, wildly powerful poems. “Much Madness is divinest Sense” is 222 characters. Twitter’s character limit is 280.
Dickinson teaches us to value our words and to channel isolation into something productive, smart, and poetic. Women continue to face the challenge today of addressing the eternal paradox of being a woman. Be beautiful, but do not try too hard. Be smart, but do not be a know-it-all. Use your voice, but do not be shrill. Dickinson made a career out of using the paradox to her advantage, to say something profound in as little as 222 characters. Kleeman suggests that in this age of “female empowerment” as code for women feeling pressure to be the best at everything, her response is just two characters: no.
Be beautiful, but do not try too hard. Be smart, but do not be a know-it-all. Use your voice, but do not be shrill.
Ali Lange is a New Orleans native who celebrates the city’s art, history, food, music, fashion, and decadence. Ali is a recent graduate from Tulane University with a degree in English. While studying at Tulane, Ali contributed bi-weekly articles to Her Campus, a web-based platform for collegiate women. With a focus on women in literature and history, Ali will continue her education at Tulane in the fall of 2018 to earn her Master’s degree in English.
Margaret Stolte is an artist and humor writer living in NYC. She has written for the Belladonna Comedy, the Pink Canoe, and Women in Comedy Fest Daily. She is the Founder of the Instagram account @thisbitchforpresident, an art project seeking to combine humor with wildly loyal friendship and feminism. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @margoatz.