“In a few years I will become a girl emptied of herself, swollen with romantic ideas in a world reduced to other people’s expectations.”- Annie Ernaux, A Frozen Woman
This is the tale of an unnamed female narrator who ends up following the path expected of her by society. Yet, she is ambitious and also wants to become a teacher and find happiness. But society tells her that “one must live one’s femaleness in its entirety to be ‘complete’ and therefore happy.” And that completeness involves both marriage and motherhood.
During her childhood and through her early teenage years the narrator doesn’t realize that the unconventional roles her parents play are frowned upon by society; for example, her mother settles the accounts, while her father (shockingly, to most) peels the potatoes. Her parents want her to be happy and they often tell her that life for a woman “doesn’t require wearing a bridal veil.”.
It seems that whatever is taught in the home is so easily eroded by contact with the outside world. The narrator ends up aspiring for the same things as the other girls once she has more interaction with this world. The first thing she aspires for is to be desired by men:
“The body under constant surveillance and restraint, abruptly shattered into a heap of pieces–eyes, skin, hair–that must be dealt with one by one to reach perfection.”
Ernaux’s depictions of motherhood were stifling and very real. One thing that stood out to me was the homogeneous (ideal) image of motherhood that was presented by the Church and the schools, yet not all mothers fit this image:
“I see the ideal mother as part of a way of life that has precious little to do with ours.”
This was also a tale of control, society and religion controlling women’s actions, activities, feelings, and appearances. Being an intelligent and headstrong woman, our narrator’s insights about these facts were very interesting but also sad:
“Sisyphus and that rock he rolls endlessly up the hill– at least it’s dramatic, a man on a mountain outlined against the horizon, whereas a woman in her kitchen tossing some butter into a frypan three hundred and sixty-five times a year, that’s neither heroic nor absurd, that’s just life.”
This book was incredibly moving. I think for most women who read it, it will be a reminder of our years of socialization and how gender roles and expectations are forced on us, and are reinforced in many ways, for example, through religion. The book evokes the struggles, the misinformation, the social cues we pick up from all around us of how to be, what is expected of us as women. And what I also found interesting was the investigation into gender roles, and how we as humans lend a hand to these by how we react to them, especially how we react to those who do not fall into those roles.
This was the tale of a woman who was so unfulfilled, who might have been happier had she gone the path she chose, instead of the path society forced upon her. I really did feel so much empathy for her, especially in her married life. I have yet to read any Simone De Beauvoir, but her book “The Second Sex” comes up a lot in this book.
I rarely read a book that has so much despair. It’s clear that women now have more choices than ever before, but I did spare a thought for the women who came before me who had very little support from society to pursue their dreams.