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The word ‘silly’ in George Eliot’s essay Silly Novels by Lady Novelists is, as she herself puts it, “impertinent” in all its variants: provocative, assuming, intrusive, etc. If there is any- quite likely- initial angry response to it, then it is also likely that such a response will turn to a kind of sympathetic permission once the real identity of ‘George Eliot’ is revealed. But once one reads her contextual definition of this term, then one is bound to pay attention, to discard any such anger or sympathy, and consider the likeliness of ‘silly lady novelists”.
Eliot uses ‘silly’ to refer to the mediocre enlightenment of certain women novelists as reflected in their writings. It is a ‘mediocre enlightenment’ in the sense that while the writers are educated, or undereducated, and they seek to prove this smartness, their intellectual exposure, as symbols for their trampling of the stereotypes against them, deep down they seem to be stuck in those very archaic notions of themselves and their writings reveal and confirm them.
The “feminine silliness of certain women’s literary forms is the fact that they confirm the common prejudice and stereotypes against their [the women’s] solid education. The heroines of such ‘Silly Novels’ reflect the gender stereotypes against women in the Victorian society. The heroine is mostly pious and beautiful, wealthy and stylish, and if she starts from a humble beginning, meaning poor background, she will get rich in the end by securing herself a rich husband (Shelton). The female characters worry themselves over “ball dresses and bonnets, giggling over sweet love-confidences… acrid gossip” (Eliot).
For instance, the heroine in Compensation is mostly described as possessing a remarkable “original mind”, and can read Hebrew, Sanskrit and Greek, while also managing to maintain her “beautiful small head” (Shelton).
In the end, while these stories are meant to flaunt how intelligent these writers are, they instead betray their ignorance. They imply that knowledge is unattainable to women. Instead they romanticize it as a people who are deprived of it. “These women… are said to be educated to the level of absurdity” (Shelton). That is, their attainment of knowledge has only been superficial, perhaps only for show-off, but it does little to change their perceptions of themselves: “the acquisition does not pass into culture” (Eliot).
In this paper I will attempt to trace Eliot’s theory as reflected in Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water, with the aim of confirming her [Eliot’s] arguments.
Oates’ Black Water, believed to have been inspired by the Chappaquiddick incident, tells of Kelly’s reflection on her life in the last minutes before she dies. Kelly and her lover, a senator, are in a car when the senator, who is driving, loses control and the car is forced into a river. The senator, fearing for his political career, leaves Kelly in the car drowning. And as Kelly faces imminent death, she looks back at her life, at her life with her lover, the senator (Seal).
Oates does not prefer to be seen as sexist. Her part in exploring feminist discourse is mostly to attempt to assess how male definitions of women make and unmake them. Her female characters are normally threatened from all directions of the worlds in which they live, surrounded by violence explicitly linked to contexts socially realistic and founded in the chaos in which they find themselves growing up (Kirubahar 110).
As in many of her works, in Black Water, Oates explores the woman and how the world views her, and how as a result of that view, she becomes a victim to it. Kelly becomes a victim of a man’s ambition. Oates does not go into possibilities; that perhaps if the senator had only tried to save Kelly, then perhaps she would have survived. But then the reader wonders if perhaps Kelly would have survived had the senator made the move to save her.
But this going ahead of ourselves. It is important to assess how Oates explores both gender and finally, to what extent her approach falls within Eliot’s Silly Novel.
In this story we come into contact with two modes of invasion: the masculine and the feminine. The masculine invasion is crudely assertive (Seal). It is blunt, unreserved and unapologetic. Kelly recalls many times how the senator, for instance, forces his tongue into her mouth. In fact, it is the senator’s driving, his crude turns and unchecked accelerations that finally force the car off the road and into the water.
The feminine invasion, on the other hand, is represented by the metaphor of the water. Kelly’s invasion is formally connected by the way that her narration of her recollected life lap at and finally immerse her whole consciousness, as well as the way that water laps at her body and finally immerses it (Seal).
Oates’ choice of making the male character a politician is intentional. Politics is the stereotypical symbol for a man’s assertiveness: “a politician ever makes himself a part of one’s life, thrusts himself into other people’s existence so as to claim their attention and support” (Seal).
We encounter Kelly’s assertiveness in the exchange that she and the senator have when he refers to a man as “the political animal”. She takes note of the word ‘man’ and asks him why women can’t be referred to as “political animals”. At this, the senator attempts to pacify her assertive boldness in this debate by admitting, rather sympathetically, that some women could, except they [women] find politics boring. When Kelly shows no signs of relenting the senator kisses her forcefully in an attempt to conclude the talk. She kisses him back ‘boldly’ as if it is ‘her due’.
There are two explicitly notable instances of boldness on the part of Kelly here. And in both instances, Oates comments on the ‘unusuality’ of it.
But these instances of boldness on Kelly’s part are both questionable. The first boldness is ambiguous; is Kelly bold in her approach to the argument or on her take that women should also be considered as political animals? Either way, this boldness is sort of nullified under the spell of the senator’s kiss. First, if she is bold in the challenge that she presents the senator with, that is, arguing for the sake of winning the argument, then she fails in that bid when she falls for the senator’s kiss. But it is also notable that if she is arguing for argument’s sake, then this is akin to Eliot’s argument on women flaunting their intelligence; “mental pocket mirror” (Eliot) just so those who witness it can praise it and make the women feel proud of themselves, rather than to influence an ending.
Two, it is obvious that her take does not change the senator’s mind on what he has just said. Of course, it is not expected that the senator will suddenly be changed by Kelly’s opinion. But it should be expected that if Kelly believes what she is saying as much as Oates would like us to believe, then she should be able to take her stand firmly and make the senator and the readers see that confidence and that she means what she is saying. Instead, it all crumbles when she gives in to the senator’s kiss, which is an intentional move by the senator to end the debate. In other words, Kelly’s boldness is overshadowed by the stronger assertiveness of the senator. “Kelly is being invaded by the senator and she’s taking it all in like it just the most natural thing for her to do” (Seal).
Oates would like us to believe that Kelly’s readiness to take this kiss is a good thing. But it is not. Or atleast, the distinction between Kelly knowing what she wants and going for it, and simply being vulnerable to the senator’s assertiveness is not so clear. Furthermore, the little dignity that the reader may carve out of this behavior on Kelly’s part is killed by Oates’ insistence to mention its ‘unusuality’ and account for it.
Oates takes it upon herself to remind us that Kelly is not usually as bold. Whatever Oates wishes that this revelation provokes in the readers not so clear; should it provoke sympathy or admiration? Oates wishes that the reader admire the boldness of Kelly as that of an enlightened woman. Yet she insists on emphasizing Kelly’s feminine piety that the society expects of women.
But this raises an important question. If this boldness is unusual of Kelly, then what is usual of her? Oates takes note of minute details: fragmentary thought and micro-sensations that should be read as warning of Kelly’s coming death. Not only is Kelly being invaded by the senator, but also by Oates herself. Kelly is positioned in such a way that invading her seems natural for anyone who is willing.
Even Oates her admits that this invasiveness upon Kelly is there. By distinguishing what a novelist can reach in a character’s mind and what he/she cannot reach, Oates exposes her intentional, conscious attempt to invade Kelly’s mind.
The ultimate question that this story seems to ask is which one between the senator’s and Kelly’s invasion is worse. Oates does not wish to take any clear sides here. Although she unambigouosly blames the senator for the accident, she seems to give the reader the task of going back a little bit and try to pick out how Kelly may also have decided her wn fate. Here are the senators’s irresponsibility as wel as Kelly’s naivete.
Seal sees this as blaming the victim. But perhaps the most appropriate argument would be ‘blaming the woman’.
I see this as Oates attempt, just as the whole book shows, to look at the woman as an independent entity responsible for herself, rather than as an appendage or accessory to the needs of the men, so that their misfortunes are blamed on the men. Yet Kelly seems to do just that, blame the senator for her death.
Through Kelly, Oates reveals- may be not generally, but in this specific work- her double standard understanding of women’s enlightenment and how it can be put to work. Kelly is intelligent enough. But that intelligence does little to alter her feminine gullibility to passion.
Many have argued used Oates’ underlying sensibility to feminism in most of her fiction to defend her as a feminist. According to Marilyn C. Wesley, Oates’ works strongly challenge chauvinistic gender ideology. However, a few things in this story interrogate this argument (eNotes).
Oates admires Kelly’s boldness. Yet she also fears others will see it as immoral of Kelly, and as such offers an absolution. By being conscious of this ‘mistaken immorality’, Oates herself falls in the bandwagon that is society’s psychology on the expected piety of women.
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