Recently discovered an old laptop with my best work on it. This was from a class with one of my favorite Lit professors.
Written in 1916, William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Young Housewife” is indicative of man’s take on the woman’s condition at that time in America. The early 20th century marked the height of the women’s suffrage movement that defined first-wave feminism. The modern woman’s perspective of herself at the time was that she was on the road to equality, and that she was now defining herself not just through marriage and housewifery, but also through activism and citizenship. The Modernist movement of the arts and literature was similar to the feminist movements in its goals—literary Modernism was all about deconstructing past, outdated rhetoric and recreating it in order to reflect the rapidly increasing modern advances of the early 20th century. However, despite Modernism’s progressive mindset, for many male writers, one portrayal from the past still seemed to remain the same in literature: the female’s condition, her societal role, and subsequently, her worth.
While Williams had some pieces that showed a respect for women, the respect was shown only when he was addressing them through a romantic lens, through her “feminine” loveliness and role as a lover and wife. It is known of Williams that in his perspective, “for male writers, poetry is a reparation to women for their beauty, which is culturally appropriated by men for their poetry via the mechanism of ‘the gaze’” (Dettmar). When the current female object of affection in Williams’ poetry was no longer ideal to him, whatever that ideal was at the time, he was rather harsh and unsympathetic in his portrayal of her, as were critics of first wave feminism when it did not conform to the mold of the politically voiceless housewife. In spite the suffrage movement giving women themselves a sense of individualism, and even with the presence of a few women in the Modernist rhetoric, it seems that the male perception of the woman as a passive, docile housewife did not change uniformly, even in the most “progressive” artistic and Modern minds of the time, of which Williams was considered. While it is only one poem in a sea of others, when isolated, “The Young Housewife” represents a complicated, gender-based dichotomy of that time period, a struggle between man wanting to control and repress the woman as an individual, and man wanting to love her as an intimate wife and childbearer. In “The Young Housewife,” the woman is defined by and given her identity through the lens of the male artist, the Modernist artist, and the narrator of the poem only defines the housewife he sees in terms of her marriage, her boundaries, her insecurity, and her weakness, in the end.
The the decline of the first “wave” of feminism was due in part to the fact that the women’s common goal at the time, the vote, had now been acquired (Banner). Women’s individual interests began to diverge after there was no one, solidified political cause for them to mobilize for, and because the women’s movement had not expanded to the arts, this gave way for men to be the major voice for both genders in literature, art and poetry. The early 20th century saw a paradoxical time were women were becoming more prominent in the public eye, in the forms of silent film actresses and “flappers,” but were still being sentenced to the isolation of the home in male-written rhetoric. In “The Young Housewife,” the narrator, a doctor and a poet, is not merely just an observer of the young wife he sees, he is not as distant from her as men were in earlier times, but rather he is able to access her mind as he watches her. In Modernism, “the poet is never simply an invisible figure who wields the power to name and describe but rather a speaker whose voice effects a relationship in verse” (Dettmar). However, even though he accesses her thoughts, the narrator’s analysis of her actions is still filtered through what he wants from her, not what she wants for herself.
“The Young Housewife”’s most vivid images are of the housewife’s attire and her body. In the first stanza, the man observes the housewife as she stands confined by her husband’s walls, and notes that the woman is “in negligee,” or a revealing nightgown garment (McMicheal). It is telling that even when visually impeded by a wall, and also visually impeded by the car he’s in, the first thing his eyes are drawn to is her clothing. Calling the walls “the husband’s” as well immediately places the woman into an unreachable place in his mind, a place where she cannot belong to him; however, the man still toys with the idea that because of her tempting “negligee,” he can attempt to peer through the wall of marriage, the wall of another man’s possession, and gaze at her anyway. It is also interesting that instead of saying that she is in a negligee, he writes “negligee” as though it is to resemble “negligence” (Aheam). Williams does this to signify both the negligence of the husband for leaving his wife alone in the yard at ten A.M., and the negligence of her to her own home, as she is standing outside of it, at risk of being viewed by other men.
The narrator does not just see the unattainable woman as held back from him because of her husband, but as he observes her futher, he goes on to create other boundaries as well. In the second stanza, the man drives back past the housewife to find that she is now outside the walls of her home, standing on the curb to greet the “ice man and fish man” (McMichael). However, “when she finally emerges, more physical limitations appear. The ‘curb’ seems to be one barrier that marks the boundary between herself and the delivery men, who she is waiting on(…)The poet, too, exists in a physical container—his car” (Dettmar). At this point the narrator has not only defined the woman’s personal boundaries from him as an individual, but also her boundaries from all other men who will pass by. It’s almost as if he sees it as unfair that she is standing on the street, in the open. The line “I pass in my solitary car” is the only sentence in the poem that is not purposefully separated by a line break, and the only sentence in the work that ends in a period and stands on its own. The man’s isolation is felt due to this; he notes that he is isolated as he then focuses his gaze on her physical appearance almost helplessly, despite being barred from her, focusing in on the vivid image of her “uncorseted” waist and her shy strands of hair (McMicheal). It is as if the narrator thinks that the only reason the woman has gone outside is to be viewed, to gain validation; and validation is what he gives her in his train of thought. When he describes her as “shy, uncorseted,” he sees her as having “have tucked away her individuality as casually as she tucked in her ‘stray ends’ of hair(…)Furthermore, the adjective ‘stray’ suggests her possible predilection for escaping orderly confines, whether in terms of hair arrangement or in terms of more serious transgressions” (Dettmar). At this point, the extent of the male’s fantasy about this housewife has reached his peak; by imagining her as uncorseted and imagining that she has the ability stray, he is imagining that this woman might actually return his gaze despite his separation via vehicle, that she is capable of “straying” from all of her boundaries, including her husband’s walls. This is all very interesting considering that, literally, all the woman is actually doing is waiting for the deliverymen. However, in the narrator’s fanatical gaze, she is seen not for her housework, but for her appearance; the woman is aware of the fact that her appearance is on display, as she self-consciously fixes her hair once she is outside, but she thinks of not much else of it; the narrator as a poet, as well as Williams as a poet, do not give her the chance to think past that sentiment in the narrative. Repressing herself behind walls is something that the female does by habit, in the male’s point of view. And once she has retreated into her own privacy, the man feels as though he has lost her and lost a chance at her, even if she is not his to begin with.
Fluently, in the same line that fantasizes about the young woman “straying,” the narrator artistically defines the woman, saying, “I compare her to a falling leaf” (McMicheal). This image of a single, falling leaf, and the romantic, poetic usage of the word “compare,” suggests one last portrayal of the woman as defined through her beauty. The narrator physically equates her to nature while at the same time retreating into his ability to express himself creatively, his intellect, his poetry (Aheam). He separates the two of them more by doing this, becoming an observer of nature instead of a human trying to connect with a another human; “There is an inward turning; the woman toward her appearance, the poet toward his art. (Note the parallelism of roles: she emerges as a housewife but also meets people at the curb as an object of desire; he passes by as a doctor, but also acts as a poet)” (Dettmar). By saying that she is “falling,” the man is only pushing the separation of him and the woman along; saddened, he is admitting defeat, and admitting that the woman is shy, withdrawn, and is too absorbed in her home life and her walls to ever stray with him. She does not want him, and thus “she is one fallen leaf among many—something to be swept away and forgotten” (Giorcelli).
The image of the woman as single, falling leaf quite suddenly abruptly, then, becomes that of a heap of dry, dead leaves in the third stanza. “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling” (McMicheals). The sudden crushing over of the leaves with the car instantly creates an almost sadistic change in the man’s attitude. From a single, unique leaf, the woman has become a heap of meaningless leaves in the street; from a desirable object that the man observes, the woman has become a group of women who are not desirable, who are worthy of being run over and passed up carelessly and quickly, as if they never mattered. It is also interesting that Williams writes that the wheels are ‘noiseless,’ but in the very next line the wheels ‘rush’ with a ‘crackling sound.’ It is ironic that he attempts to leave the woman behind noiselessly, but almost without even realizing it, he ends up leaving very noisily. The man also seems proud of the fact that he is able to bow and smile instead of want her; it is almost as if he is doing her a favor by behaving as a gentleman, by not acting in the frustrated way that would warrant him running over her with a car. So quickly, he went from feeling forlorn about her, to lusting after her, to admiring her, and then to dismissing her, and this is in no way a new or modern view of the way men feel about women in America. These two extremes, this rapidly fluctuating attachment and detachment, have always been present in the male’s take on the female gender. David D. Gilmore writes in his anthropological study on misogyny that, in Western and Eastern cultures, in ancient times and as of now, “wherever misogynist beliefs are the most sordid and flamboyant, one also finds their exact opposite: histrionic rituals of female imitation or glorification” (Gilmore). The “histrionic ritual” of the early American 20th century was still, as it always has been, childbirth, and the mysticism of the woman’s ability to get pregnant. Childbirth being defined exclusively through the female creates the inevitable necessity that mankind had to reproduce life through the woman’s body; he needs her, even though he may not want to (Gilmore). The American culture has always idolized the housewife role as the “female’s destiny” because of this need, and has thus socially determined that there is no other destiny for the woman besides her belonging to her husband’s lineage; hence the anti-feminist sentiment felt throughout the country, during the first-wave and others. Hence the male’s rejection of the female as anything other than a birthing vessel—and in the case of “The Young Housewife,” the narrator must harshly detach himself from this woman because, obviously, she belongs to and is the birthing vessel for another man; he has to resist the temptation to have her because of her biological destiny and duty to another.
Throughout his poetic career, Williams’ commentary of the woman continued to become disillusioned, despite his attempts to see women as he once did. Williams himself was said to had a complicated relationship with women (Crawford), and this is shown in the way some of his poetry about women regressed from 1916 on. In the McMicheal Anthology, the selected poems about women written by him in 1920 are “Queenannslace” and “Portrait of a Lady.” In Portrait of a Lady especially, he presents these almost Renaissance-like description of, again, the woman’s body parts, particularly those of her lower half, but abruptly breaks those descriptions with more realistic, pessimistic comments. “Your thighs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky. / Which sky? The sky / where Watteau hung a lady’s / slipper. Your knees / are a southern breeze — or / a gust of snow…” (McMichael). He goes back and forth between romanticizing and dismissing the woman again, and by the end of the poem he still cannot determine a “new way” to view the woman, sexually, aesthetically, or otherwise. Williams is stuck on how to view them as of their place in the new century, as of their place in men’s’ lives at the time, even as a Modernist, dedicated to the movement of reform and change. The man and woman are not fused together in Modernist poetry unless they are intimate or married, or the women is just being viewed for her body; and when that narrow-minded definition of intimacy then fails and becomes “realistic,” “no longer are the lovers viewed as a pair, reflected in the living world of nature. Rather, the natural world splits and fragments, challenging the poet-lover to find what are, so to speak, new fields to conquer” (Giorcelli). These ‘new fields’ are the paths Modernist men, leading the movement, took intellectually.
Sometimes Williams praised women in earlier poetry, but his works show that eventually he grew weary of them; he got tired of trying to figure them out, tired of wondering why their images were so conflicting to him. He seemed to be blocked as to how to deal with the unattainable feminine object, unsure as to how to characterize her in his mind in the changing, modern world. His only answer to the incessant question of how to digest the woman’s presence was to ignore it, and although ignoring the woman’s condition is effective for a time, it is not a solution to the problem. In spite of both the male and female disillusionment with feminism, during the first-wave of Williams’ time, feminism eventually rose again in the second-wave, and the third. The female will always show herself; she is a part of this world.
The first half of “The Young Housewife” is an attempt to intimately connect with the woman as an equal; but after several failed attempts to intimately connect with her and surpass her so-called boundaries, the ones he invented for her himself, the “leaves falling” represent man separating himself from woman once again, represent women gradually falling back in the male’s sexism, pushed once again out of equality. The woman’s condition did not improve as a result of the literature of Modernism, and the complex, negatively-emotional relationship that the male gender has always had with the female was not quite transcended during the movement. In fact, this relationship, which has been embedded in our human experience ever since there have been two sexes, still has not been completely transcended even now; it has come a long way since Williams’ time, but is still a persistent that problem with no current solution that the American literary movements have taken a while to catch onto, delve into, and truly explore. “The Young Housewife” is indicative of something that Williams probably did not realize at the time, something that is apparent now in gender studies discourse: the reason that man cannot fully understand woman and what she wants is because he is constantly barring himself to her true nature, creating “mental boundaries” for himself, not even giving her the chance to speak for herself or tell the world what she wants. By constantly playing this guessing game with the female gender, instead of asking of the gender what exactly they want to know about it, and listening, the male gender may find that they will never quite get the woman’s condition right. They will never be able to occupy the woman’s mind unless the woman’s mind is hers, not theirs, unless it is expressed with its own individual perspective, emotions, and language. The integration of women into the discourse of literature is essential to having equality.
Ahearn, Barry. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Cambridge
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Banner, Lois W. Women in Modern America; A Brief History. New York: Harcourt Brace
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Crawford, T. Hugh. William Carlos Williams And The Maternal Muse. American Literature
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Dettmar, Kevin, and Stephen Watt. The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry. Michigan:
University of Michigan, 1996. Print.
Giorcelli, Cristina, and Maria A. Stefanelli. The Fallen Leaf and the Stain of Love: The
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McMichael, George L. Concise Anthology of American Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1985.