Societal Expectations Play a Part in The Term Paper

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societal expectations play a part in "The Sorrowful Woman."

The protagonist in Gail Godwin's short story "A Sorrowful Woman" demonstrates not only the ways in which people's lives can become compromised and limited by their attempts to meet the expectations of others but also the ways in which we each internalize those expectations. This is the real harm that limiting attitudes like racism and sexism have, as Godwin shows us: Not that other people try to limit what we can accomplish in our lives but that we ourselves also begin to believe that we are not good enough to be, as Dickens so eloquently summarized it, the heroes of our own lives.

The story tells about a woman who has become so used to following the societally determined and enforced rules of conduct for a wife and a mother that she is no longer capable of living in an atmosphere of freedom. She finds that she cannot even write a sonnet -- that emblem of restricted literary forms because she "had choices for the sonnet, ABAB or ABBA for a start. She pondered these possibilities until she tottered into a larger choice: she did not have to write a sonnet. Her poem could be six, eight, ten, thirteen lines, it could be any number of lines, and it did not even have to rhyme."

We see a woman, like the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" who in the end can either conform unhappily to social rules or turn to a self-effacing madness, and who chooses the latter.

3. Examine a static character.

John Updike's "A&P" tells us a tale that we've all heard before, although in such an engaging way that we are quite happy to hear it one more time. The story, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1961, is a coming-of-age story. Updike's story follows a boy's thwarted attempts to impress a girl and how in the end this boy, the narrator Sammy, instead only impresses himself with the difficulty of being an adult. It is at the same time the story of how Sammy comes to recognize his own agency, the fact that he has the ability to set his own course in life. This is a crucial point in each person's life, that moment when we realize that we have become one of the "adults," and while fate can always step in for good or evil we have come to have a significant say in our own affairs.

Because Sammy changes in the story from a childlike character who sees himself as someone that things happen to a more mature character who can affect change, he is an example of a dynamic character.

4. Analyze the title in "A Doll's House."

Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House is almost certainly not as shocking to those who read it today as it was when it was first published. In many ways, general public attitudes have caught up with Ibsen's own so that his play now appears to express what many people feel. And yet this must not blind us to the fact that his play was very much ahead of his time in so many ways -- especially, of course -- in the way in which women are depicted. Ibsen uses the gap between appearances and what is real to make us question why reality is the way it is and what we might do to change aspects of the world that we do not like. He asks us to ask ourselves why it is that a woman should be treated like a doll rather than an independent human being who can think for herself. Understanding that the title is both ironic and condemnatory of social practices of the time is the essential key to understanding this powerful play.

5. Discuss how the setting is used in "The Storm."

There are actually two different kinds of setting that Kate Chopin uses in her short story "The Storm," and she uses both to good effect. The first is the storm itself, an example of the power of natural forces that overcome human life and human social conventions: Just as there is no way that people can avoid being drenched by the storm, people (in the form here of Alcee and Calixta) can be overcome by the physical elements of passion. Both storm and passion can be resisted or given in to.

The other essential element of the setting in Chopin's story is the Cajun region of the Southwestern United States, which lends to the characters both an air of exotic-ness and also to their seeming isolation from mainstream American conventions and morality.

6. Examine the symbolism in "The Sick Rose."

William Blake's "The Sick Rose" plays with the symbol of the storm that Chopin uses to such good effect: Both writers suggest that storms -- which are both times of darkness and times of upheaval -- disrupt the social order of the human world (as well as the typical order of the natural world) in such a way that great harm can be done in a moment, even if the consequences of such harm are not immediately visible. The fact that the rose has to be told by the poet that it is sick is an indication of how the consequences of actions are not always obvious right away.

Blake, very much like Chopin, also suggests that it is not only storms and darkness that allow powerful forces to enter into the human heart but also that love comes to us in the darkness. The poet, however, draws a different conclusion than does Chopin: For Blake love can destroy. Chopin is more optimistic about its power to redeem.

7. What common themes are there in the works that we have read? Is this surprising?

A number of the works that we have read emphasize the ways in which social conventions restrict women, ruining not only their own lives but often also those of their families. We see theme best expressed in A Doll's House, and "A Sorrowful Woman." A useful point of contrast is Updike's "A&P" in which w see a boy understanding that becoming a man will allow him far greater freedom. In Ibsen and Godwin's works, we see how adulthood for women means far less freedom.

8. In a moral court, who would be more guilty, Calixta or Nora?

In a moral court, I would find Nora more guilty than Calixta, because Chopin makes it quite clear at the end of the story that everyone is content -- that while conventional standards of morality have certainly been broken there had been no personal harm done. This may simply be, however, because the consequences of the characters actions have not had long enough to be known. Chopin's characters -- like Ibsen's -- may pay in the end.

Also, Nora seems a less admirable character because she seems more motivated by convention. She may well also be motivated to do what is right -- but Calixta is a far more impassioned character, and this makes her more likable.

9. What is the key issue in "The Storm"?

10. The key issue in the storm is the question of whether happiness is more important than truth. While most religions and many philosophies stress the importance of truth as the highest importance, happiness is also important. In "The Storm" we are presented with a pair of characters who have clearly been sexually attracted to each other for a long time but have, at least recently, been unable to act on their feelings for each other because they are married to other people. The storm provides a moment out of time for them, an occasion when the rules that usually govern their lives have been for the moment suspended and they are allowed to live out their dreams -- not only in terms of their fantasies about each other, but also the dreams that they once had about their lives when they were young. This story is about what happens when people privilege happiness over truth and convention.

10. These works cover a wide range of time; as a scholar does one find any surprising similarities or discrepancies amongst them?

Reading these works -- which were written over a not-inconsiderable period of time -- presents a surprisingly unified set of themes. "A Sorrowful Woman" especially seems to be older than it actually is: It could easily be the philosophical contemporary of the work of Ibsen. However, after one's initial surprise that works written generations apart still profess the same message, we must remind ourselves how very slowly society changes. There is not, after all so very much history between Ibsen's and Godwin's world and certainly the status of women changed relatively little during this period of time. Godwin was writing on the cusp of the modern women's movement, a time in before abortion was legalized, daycare was barely existent, few women worked full-time…

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