Last March, as my way of honoring this month of celebrating women’s history, I decided to forego the monthly book review in order to focus briefly on four great women writers of the past fifty years. Staggered with a range of choices, I decided to talk about great writers who seem not to be sufficiently recognized by American readers; I chose Nadine Gordimer, Penelope Lively, Edwidge Danticat, and Toni Cade Bambara. This year I want to recall for you Iris Murdoch, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.
As a person who reads in order to try to understand the world we live in, I have no doubt that women have authored the most important moral-social-political fiction of the past fifty years. To come to political consciousness via coming to understand the systematic oppression of women (among others) has almost always led also to a wider coming to consciousness of oppression. So it is not surprising that women writers, rather than writing adventure novels or stories about lonely, existential heroes, center in on social and political issues (not to mention attention to relationships and families).
Iris Murdoch was both a very good philosopher and a very good writer of fiction; that is a combination that is so rare. In the past hundred years as philosophy has been more and more influenced by science and scientific method, philosophers have looked more and more askance at using literature as a vehicle for doing philosophy. Perhaps this skepticism goes clear back to Plato and his warnings about how, in the mouths of poets, words become honeyed and mellifluous, thus diverting from their main task of discovering truth—language used not for truth-seeking, but perverted into mere entertainment. As much as Murdoch admired Plato, she insists that some parts of philosophy, especially ethics, cannot be completely disclosed without the use of metaphor and of art. Discursive essay that proceeds by lineal argument can go along way in laying out ethical theory, but it cannot complete the task at hand, which is literally to make us into morally better beings. Literature, novels, can bring moral truth out of concealment, reveal it to us, in a way that essay cannot. Literature can portray us human beings as we are, selfish by nature, viewing the world through the veil of our own cares and concerns, frightened of and fleeing from death, mistaking lust for love. But, while Murdoch’s characters reveal to the reader all the traits listed above, some of them also display the capability of really attending to others—piercing the veil and really seeing. Murdoch claims that both Continental philosophy (existentialism) and analytic philosophy have over-accentuated the will and the concept of duty—doing right as a kind of near heroic, willful acting on principle after cool reflection. In fact, she insists, morality is a matter of habit, of establishing habits of really looking, really attending to others. When the chips are down (as they always are), we will do what we are in the habit of doing, thus, morality, itself, is primarily nurturing habits of attention. Although Murdoch did not identify herself as a feminist, her ideas are consonant with those of Nell Nodding and other feminist ethicists in stressing care and personal relations as an at least overlooked and under-stressed feature of ethical theory. If you have tried Murdoch before and found her just too depressing or her stories too complicated, try reading her essay “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts.” Although a bit technical, the essay gives a quick statement of her view of the role of fiction in understanding morality, and my belief is that once one understands what Murdoch is up to her novels, they become both easier to read and more revelatory. You might find you want to read more than one.
Alice Munro is a Canadian writer not well known among Americans, but my reader friends who know of her wait anxiously for each new book, wishing she would give us more, that she would write long novels, talk us to sleep every night. She is a superb short-story writer, usually stories about small towns, families, ordinary people. Not long ago, I talked of her most recent collection of stories, Runaway, so today let me mention her 1971 novel, Lives of Girls and Women. It is autobiographical in form (though she insists not in fact), and describes the coming of age of a bright young girl with a very bright and unconventional mother—strong enough to be an atheist with socialist leanings in small-town Canada in the fifties. Most of us have to rebel away from our religious upbringings, the young girl in this story has to go to all churches as a way of standing up to her powerful, bright mother. Of course, already ‘tainted’ by an inquiring mind and a thirst for good reasons if not proof, she is disappointed in her search for God and her desire to deny the reality of death. Rebellion and attention to the world drive her back to the liberal views of her mother, but with a much greater understanding of poverty and classism. Dirt and bad grammar bother her mother to the point of being unable at times to deal with the very people she wants to ‘save.’ She was on the side of Negroes and Jews and Chinese and women, but she could not bear drunkenness, dirty language, haphazard lives, contented ignorance; and so she had to exclude the Flats Road people from the really oppressed and deprived people, the real poor whom she still loved. Munro is funny, wise, and a word-weaver of the highest order.
The last two authors I want to mention are so well known that I suspect I need to say little about them in order to remind you of their work. Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood quite obviously and self-consciously set out to do social criticism, to expose the oppression and injustice they saw in the world. I’m sure most of you have read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Morrison’s Beloved. So I will say just a few words about early novels of each that you may not have read. I think one of Atwood’s most humorous novels is a very early one entitled The Edible Woman in which a young woman is just becoming aware of the sexism in the world around her. While this little book is less shocking than Surfacing, the book that really catapulted her to fame, and less grim and frightening than The Handmaid’s Tale, it certainly showcased Atwood’s talent for social criticism.
The works of Toni Morrison that I want to call to your attention are her chilling little tale, The Bluest Eye, and her masterpiece, Song of Solomon. In The Bluest Eye Morrison shows us what it means for an oppressed class to take on the values of the oppressor. Unremittingly sad and painful to read, it is a book that brings to life Franz Fanon’s description of how oppressed people are inculcated with the very values that crush them. Song of Solomon, while equally cognizant of how economic exploitation exhibits itself in racism, is in the end a powerful, even joyful book about perseverance and courage and the possibilities of a better future.
There are so many books by these authors I might have mentioned, and so many other great women novelists of the past fifty years who deserve to be remembered and read.