In society, for many centuries now, a stereotype for women was created, which is that their only purpose in life is to support and care for their family. However, beginning in the 19th century, women began wanting more than this, and many decided to reject their role as housewives to attain more in life. Soon, these ideas started being reflected in literature. Karen Van Der Zee’s “A Secret Sorrow” and Gail Godwin’s “A Sorrowful Woman” are two works that portray the lives of women who were part of a society that forced them to comply with their designated role. Both narratives demonstrate the expected position of women in society, but do so from different points of view. “A Secret Sorrow” shows a woman that desires to fit the housewife stereotype, and is unable to; on the other hand, “A Sorrowful Woman” depicts the life of a mother who could not accept her position and role, which she perfectly fit in to, and rebelled against it.
Today, women have a very different role in society than they did a century ago. Now, it is common to see mothers and wives who are professionals, working for the government or in public service, and at the same time fulfilling their role in their homes. This is a result of a reformation that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, where women whose only task and purpose was to be in the house craved for more opportunities in life. And the problem often came when they could not conform to the stereotype because of physical impediments; for example, Van Der Zee writes about one who knows what her role should be but can’t fit in because “she can’t give…children…can’t get pregnant” (pg. 33), and therefore, could not become a “true” mother. However, the women in the two stories where not left to carry their own burdens alone, they both were deeply loved and cared for by their husbands. Faye, the protagonist in “A Secret Sorrow,” doesn’t want her lover to marry her out of compassion, and wants him to have his own children, which she can’t give him. After meditating on the idea, Kai approaches to her and tells her “I love you, not your procreating ability. So, we have a problem, we’ll learn to deal with it…” (pg. 35). Similarly, we can see in “A Sorrowful Woman” that the husband repeatedly understands her fluctuating ideas and manages to adapt seeing how his wife gradually confines herself and pushes the family away. The picture portrayed by both authors is not one where the women are oppressed or underestimated by their spouses; they are loved unconditionally and supported all along, but this only seems to put more pressure on them, pushing them away even more.
The two husbands act in similar ways in both accounts, but the situations surrounding the two situations are contrary to each other. Fay in “A Secret Sorrow” has a desire to fit in and fulfill the societal role of married women; however, her physical condition prevents her from doing so. She can’t have children and her desire for his success is greater; hence, she believes that he should not marry her. She confesses being “afraid to marry (Kai)” (pg. 33), fearing that if he commits to her out of compassion only, their relationship will simply fade with time. Eventually, they overcome this obstacle and in the end, they get married and adopt three children. However, Fay’s premarital ideas have not yet faded; “they don’t even look like us…not even a tiny bit” (pg. 38), she told her husband, who, with his usual loving optimism, answered, “They are true originals, like their mother. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
A caring and loving husband also plays a big role in “A Sorrowful Woman,” but unlike Fay, his wife perfectly fulfilled the role, but didn’t want the position. In the story, she feels trapped by her responsibilities and duties as a wife and mother, and wants an alternative, only “the sight of them (husband and son) made her so sad and sick she did not want to see them ever again” (pg. 39). The first thing she tries is to leave her responsibilities as a housewife, passing them on to her husband who wakes it with “pleasure” (pg. 39). After doing so, however, she still feels trapped and proceeds to withdrawing herself to a room, where she puts on “an old sweater she loved at school” (pg. 40) showing her longing to be single and free again, and begins reading novels to escape reality. At one point, her husband complements her beauty by saying “she looks like a cloistered queen” (pg. 41). This compares her beauty to that of royalty, but also conveys the idea of being secluded as is the definition of the adjective used. In the end, her desire to be free and longing to go against her desires to serve her family result in her death. The main idea about women in that time, portrayed by the author, is their desire to change and grow but not having the opportunity to do so.
In both of these stories, it is shown that society has created a role and position women have to be in. Karen Van Der Zee showed a woman who wanted to fit the position and role but could not have kids of her own and therefore, could not be a mother of her own children. Gail Godwin, in contrast, portrays a woman who was put in this position, perfectly fitting into the role, having a son and a loving husband, but not wanting the position. Ultimately, she ended dying because of trying so hard to withdraw from her role. But history shows this didn’t remain this way, because women fought and finally achieved their goal, now having the same opportunities as men in the government and public service and the same position in society.