The Odd Women, Chapters 20 – 31

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We held our final discussion on George Gissing’s The Odd Women last night. If you’re looking for them, here are my notes on part 1 and part 2. Since I know some people are still reading, I’m going to hide this under the fold. Read on at your own (spoiler) risk!

The discussion group last night was smaller, so I’m just going to loosely outline my own notes and thoughts.

  • A thread started during our second conversation about Monica’s arc. Early in the novel, she follows the rules. Having been badly prepared by her father for life, she gets a job and works hard. She leaves employment to marry a wealthy man. That’s precisely what a working-class Victorian woman is supposed to do. But despite following the script, she ends with the most tragic ending of all (other than all the Madden sisters who die in chapter 2, I suppose). Where did Monica go wrong? Is she being punished for something?
  • I’ve written about Peter Brooks’ work on melodrama, which I think fabulously illuminates genre romance. Brooks argues that melodrama zooms in on a moment when a character makes a choice and imbues that choice with larger import. Chapter 20, “The First Lie,” is such a moment, and it’s probably where Monica “falls,” but her marriage was already irrevocably broken when she finally lied to Widdowson. In earlier morality/seduction novels, there tends to be a sense that a character could have chosen differently, but would anything have made a difference in Monica’s life?
  • In terms of the time on the page, the Everard and Rhoda plot receives top billing, but it’s ultimately a failed (though consummated) romance. While Rhoda’s arc isn’t as tragic as Monica’s, it’s not comic or triumphant. (Though Clarissa pointed out if you stop reading the book at chapter 25, you can give them an HEA.) What was Rhoda’s sin? (Pride?) Was there a way for this story to have ended differently? (For Everard not to have been a jerkface?) And do we think Everard’s marriage has any shot of being happy?
  • And poor, poor Virginia: she gets less narrative time than Rhoda or Monica, but her fall into alcoholism is every bit as tragic. Did she have a moment when she could have turned things around?
  • Our stable characters (Mary and the Micklethwaites) perhaps provide a roadmap to happiness. Or do they? There’s never a moment of interiority with the Micklethewaites, and there are very few moments when we’re in Mary’s head. Are they true alternatives to the Madden sisters, Rhoda, and Everard?
  • I was interested in the times when Mary seems to judge the choices of various characters (e.g., she regards Monica leaving her husband “with an air of indifference” when it seemed to me that she should have some sympathy), and of course, we’re supposed to believe Mary loves Everard and that that jealousy motivates the tension between Mary and Rhoda. (Which I didn’t buy. At all. I’d sooner believe Mary loved Bella, the girl who Rhoda turned away and who later committed suicide.) But all of this raises the question: what is progressive reform without true sympathy? Why are Mary and Rhoda’s offers of help dependent on the recipient’s being perfectly “deserving”? Monica tells Rhoda she confessed everything to her because Rhoda is “so strong.” Is that true and is strength enough without some softness or at least respect for human frailty?
  • In that final fascinating conversation (in chapter 29), Rhoda tells Monica, “Life seems so bitter to you that you are in despair. Yet isn’t it your duty to live as though some hope were before you?” Indeed, she says that Monica will love her child and “that love, that duty, is the life to which you must look forward. You have suffered a great deal, but after such sorrow as yours there comes quietness and resignation. Nature will help you.” Is this a contradiction of Rhoda’s values? How does social reform square with this gender determinism and duty?
  • The novel is certainly inflected by Marx (the first part of Capital was published in English in 1887), but while it shows the effects of work on the odd women, the novel doesn’t represent their work lives. We talked a little about the alienation effect in the book, the leisure/work divide, and the erasure of labor. For a novel that’s about work (and which itself was produced through work), we see mostly leisure.
  • Because the book does feel like a social meditation, I wanted it to take its critique further. I felt so frustrated with the limits of Mary, Rhoda, and Mrs. Cosgrove’s vision. “Advocate for revolution! For true social upheaval,” I kept saying to my Kindle. I couldn’t tell what the “revolutionaries” wanted, but it didn’t seem to be anything that would have made our cast of characters any happier.
  • Maybe the novel’s two epigrams are Alice’s exclamation, “Oh, everything is too dreadful! Life is too hard!” and Rhoda’s final line to Monica’s baby, “Poor little child!”

We had talked about reading Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette in July. On the plus side, The Coquette is only 160 pages (and yes, I do own two print editions). Because it’s shorter, we could probably get away with two discussions. The Coquette is fascinating and it exists intertextually with Hamilton, but it is very sad. We might not feel like another tragic morality tale after The Odd Women.

So I do have a second suggestion: Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask, which is only 40K words. It’s really a novella, and a sort feminist reimagining of Jane Eyre, except much less tragic. We could maybe have one 90-minute discussion of it.

I’d be up for either or both; let me know in the comments. And thank you so much to everyone who joined us!

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11 thoughts on “The Odd Women, Chapters 20 – 31

  1. And two other notes I meant to add.

    * Two of the most important words in the novel are love and duty. What do these words mean to various characters? What do they mean to Gissing?
    * “Isn’t it your duty to remember at every moment that your thoughts, your actions, may affect another life—that by heedlessness, by abandoning yourself to despair, you may be the cause of suffering it was in your power to avert?”: Rhoda says this to Monica in chapter 29, but I wonder if it’s the core of her philosophy. Has she lived up to it, though? Has Rhoda always acted with respect to the lives of others? And what if any power do the characters have for good? We see lots of them act heedlessly and recklessly, but when do they intervene and make a positive difference?

  2. I’m happy to read either, since both are new to me and both sound interesting, though I’m always game for a tragic morality tale :)

    You make great points about Gissing’s novel. You also asked a good question: “Why are Mary and Rhoda’s offers of help dependent on the recipient’s being perfectly deserving?” I see this as a typical Victorian attitude. Philanthropists of all stripes seemed to be obsessed with determining whether the recipients of charity were deserving or undeserving. Woe betide anyone who helps one of the “undeserving poor”!

    Also, regarding what you said about the final conversation between Rhoda and Monica, I agree that Rhoda’s words are a contradiction of her values. It’s as if Gissing forgot who Rhoda was and gave her the words of a conventional woman. It definitely seems out of character for her to advocate “quietness and resignation.

    Thanks for the Gissing chats. I really enjoyed them!

    • As I think about it more, I wonder if love made Rhoda more conventional. She’s being a jerk to Monica in chapter 29 in part because she thinks Monica was having an affair with Everard. By the end of the scene, Monica has convinced her this isn’t true, but the entire episode still undermined Rhoda’s attachment to Everard. So when she fell in love (and “don’t get married” had been her big rule), she became nothing better than a bourgeoisie moralist. Or something. ; )

      But I truly enjoyed our discussions too. I never would have heard of The Odd Women–let alone read it–if not for you. Thank you!

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