Ellen Gilchrist's Women Who Would Be Queens (and Those Who Would Dethrone Them)

Article excerpt

   "There is an old gorgeous man living right here in Jackson, Mississippi,
   that I have been loving and fighting with and showing off for since I was
   born.... My father." (1)

   "It's that old daddy.... That's who we love." (2)

MY STUDY OF ELLEN GILCHRIST'S FICTION has illuminated for me the frustrations of women like her prototypical Rhoda Manning: women of my mother's generation who grew up in the 1940s and '50s within upper middle-class families and who were allowed, even encouraged, to go to college but were sent there for that MRS, degree more so than for any B.A. or B.S.--in other words, to get enough education to help attract a lawyer or doctor. These women were certainly not expected by their fathers, brothers, their intended husbands, or even their mothers to pursue a career of their own after college. Gilchrist is at her best when she writes about these Southern debutantes of the '50s, whose education inspired ambition but whose ambitions were thwarted by their own families.

Gilchrist does pit some of her protagonists against their communities--for example, the materialistic and xenophobic upper class of New Orleans--in several stories of her first collection, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, which are among her strongest works. However, in the Rhoda stories for which she is perhaps best known--also among her strongest works--her protagonist never really gets far enough out of her own house to confront society's limitations upon her. She is too busy fighting her father's, her brother's, and later her lovers' and husbands' restrictions, which keep her at home.

In an essay entitled "Reading the Father Metaphorically," Beth Kowaleski-Wallace analyzes "reading the father as if he stands for something else," (3) which is what I did In My previous study of Gilchrist's Work, The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, (4) perceiving, at the time of that writing, the conflict the characters had with their fathers as symbolic of "the workings of [the] patriarchy" (Kowaleski-Wallace, p. 299). Kowaleski-Wallace argues that if we "scrutinize the individual father as the substitute for patriarchy with its opprcssive effects, ... we have implied that if only we could remove the influence of the father from his daughters' lives, we could remove the effect of patriarchy itself.... [But] even if the individual father could be `abolished,' patriarchal influence would not cease to exist" (p. 297). While I agree with Kowaleski-Wallace that "the behavior of the historical, individual father--particular paternal prerogatives exercised and abused--suggest[s], on a smaller scale, the workings of patriarchy" (p. 299), I also note that in Gilchrist's fiction, it is the family, directed by the father, that stands in the way of her recurring female characters: significantly, any time one of her recurring female characters breaks her leash and ventures out into the world beyond her father's or husband's property line, she actually succeeds--until her family intrudes again, that is.

Rhoda's cousin Crystal Manning, another character recurrent in Gilchrist's short story collections; Amanda McCamey of The Annunciation; and Anna Hand of The Anna Papers also strain against that same short leash holding Rhoda in. Amanda leaves her husband's New Orleans home to study in the creative writing department at the University of Arkansas, becomes a star pupil, and is selected to translate a collection of eighteenth-century Italian poetry--and her translation is then published. Anna is a writer in NewYork, well known enough that a niece she doesn't even know she has checks out her books in her local library out west. (5) Even Rhoda, who also leaves her husband, as well as her children, to study creative writing, is recognized by her professors as one of their most talented students, and at the end of the story "Music," in Victory Over Japan, (6) we learn that she, too, is a published writer living in New York. As these women pursue their common ambition to write, the conflicts that arise are not with professors, publishers, or a reading audience who fail to give a woman writer a chance. …