The submissive role of the female in a marriage or relationship is a common problem in many societies, including our own American society. This role has become so common that in fact it is now expected of the female. This male dominance goes as far back as the human race, to the beginning of relationships and marriage between the female and the male. Then, the physical prowess of the male led to his dominance in all situations and thus formed these roles. Even presently, with all our advances in equal rights and women’s’ advances in the work fields, this role of submission and passivity is still present among our society. Why do women accept this role? Why hasn’t it banished with the right to vote and her expansion into the male-dominated workplace? These roles are inbred into our society. The men are raised to lead and take charge. Women, on the other hand, are taught that their place is to keep peace, and in most scenarios that means conforming. There are many reasons women accept or allow this role. For many women, they find safety in allowing the male to dominate the relationship. The submissive role is familiar or so expected that the women fear changing the situation. Many authors illustrate this role of the sexes and portray some reasons and situations that are common in our society, such as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, in her story “The Hand”, and James Joyce, in “Eveline”. These two authors both, even though each describes a woman in a very different, yet remarkably similar, situation, discuss one of the major reasons women succumb to males.
Colette was a significant feminist in the early 1900’s when the women’s right movement was in full swing. She fought for equal opportunities for women and proved it was possible when she was the first woman to be admitted to the Goncourt Academy. As a novelist, she used her writing to illustrate the assumed roles society has developed. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature remarks, “Her professional life and three marriages helped to shape her keen insights into modern love and women’s lives.” (Compact Bedford, 196). Colette understood the expected submission role because she had lived the role of the wife several times. Also, as one of the few women in the workplace, she was subjected to even more male supremacy. She could write about the reasons why women comply because she understood and had been a victim herself.
In “The Hand”, Colette relates a story of a young bride. From the beginning of the story, she sets up the role of submission in the woman, and the domination in the husband, this unbalance of power. The husband is asleep, yet he still holds the power. While he sleeps comfortably, the wife is awake, supporting his head so that he may be comfortable. She won’ t even move because she fears waking him. He may not have consciously forced this authority over her, but he or she created it in her mind. When he twitches, the young wife believes it is her fault. She says guiltily, “I’m so heavy…I wish I could get up and turn the light off. But he is sleeping so well….” (Colette, 197). She does all she can to satisfy him and to comfort him, even at the expense of her comfort or any other luxuries. For example, “the arm twisted again, feebly, and she arched her back to make herself lighter.” (Colette, 197). Here, she is succumbing to him, even if it is through his unspoken wishes and through his actions. Even though this is a minute example, she is giving in to his desires. She gives up what she would rather in order to keep him content.
Colette uses the description of the characters to emphasize the unbalance of power. Not only does the husband outweigh the wife in power in the relationship; he is physically dominant as well. The young wife is described as slim and adolescent. The husband, on the otherhand, is described as having physical, not only mental, prowess. He is handsome, athletic, and physically dominant. He has very big arms, hands larger than the wives whole head, and “powerful knuckles and the veins engorged by the pressure on his arm” (Colette, 197). By describing him such as big, powerful, and hair on his hands and arms, the author portrays him as an animal of sorts. At one part of the story, the wife even remarks on this when she says, “It’s as if I were laying on some animal” (Colette, 197). The hand is described as “apelike” and “lowered its claws, and became a pliant beast” (Colette, 197). The author uses this as a tool to show unbalance of power. It is used to help the reader understand that the male is dominant in all respects of the relationship.
His physical supremacy enhances his authority in the marriage as well. The wife lays awake, afraid to move because she is supporting his sleeping body. She is so fearful to wake him that, even though she is in discomfort and wants to turn off the light, she relinquishes so as not to bother him.
As the story continues, she begins to see this darker side of him. Before, she did not realize she was succumbing to him or that he had any power over her. The young wife realizes his physical prowess and his potential to do harm. The story never says if he actually abuses her, but metaphorically shows through her thoughts and actions of the hand that he could or does. The hand, through her imagining and thoughts, takes on animalistic characteristics. This reflects upon the barbaric natures, the animal like fierceness, of the dominating male in relationships. The hand is described “offended, reared back and tensed up in the shape of a crab and waited, ready for battle” (Colette, 197). When she is disgusted by this behavior, the hand becomes defensive. This behavior of the hand is a metaphor for the roles in relationships. The male is often abusive or controlling in a dominant-submissive marriage. If the wife does not comply with his orders, then he often strikes out, whether it is by physical force or verbally. After the fact, especially if the wife is disgusted or hurt, the male usually denies such behavior on his part. In the same way the hand “appeared to respond to this startling discovery, this disgust. It regrouped its forces…” (Colette, 197), the male becomes defensive because he knows he is guilty of the act, but does not accept responsibility. In this way, the hand symbolizes all dominating relationships.
By the conclusion of the story, the wife realizes the power he has over her. In realizing this, she has the chance to free herself of this role of submission. However, she chooses to succumb. The final line, “Then she concealed her fear, bravely subdued herself, and, beginning her life of duplicity, of resignation, and of a lowly, delicate diplomacy, she leaned over and humbly kissed the monstrous hand” (Colette, 198), shows that she decides not to change her situation, but rather accept her role of submission. Why does she choose this life? For the young wife, as for many women who accept the same path, there is security in the non-dominant role. All the decisions are made for them. Also, it might be that she knows no other love. This is her first relationship and she is still an adolescent. She does not know if these roles are normal and excepted, but she also doesn’t know if they are not. This life is still exciting and new to her, and for the most part she enjoys it. He is not abusive all the time; in fact he is often charming. The next morning he shows his charming side when he asks “Do you want this slice, darling? I’ll butter it for you” (Colette, 197). The wife, as do many women, almost trick themselves into thinking that he is not bad because he can good sometimes. And the times he is good, he is really kind. The wife decides she can accept her fate in the role of resignation because she begins to think it isn’t that bad all the time. Also, she was used to submitting under her parent’s authority. This is the first time she is not under the watchful eye of her parents. That wasn’t that long prior to this story. Therefore, the submissive role is familiar and less frightening than change. People are afraid of change, and for many women diminishing these roles would require change.
James Joyce’s story “Eveline” further illustrates on this fear for change. In this story, the woman is not dominated by a husband, but rather her father. Her mother passed away, and Eveline was left to assume the role of taking care of her siblings and the household. Her father, even though is not described in detail, is hinted as being abusive and tyrannical. “He was usually bad of a Saturday night” (Joyce, 428), meaning he drank heavily. He also controlled Eveline’s spending, and forced her to do the shopping and cleaning. Eveline obeyed without a word for fear that he would strike her. She says, “Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence” (Joyce, 428).
Eveline wanted to move onto a better life. She did not want to be treated as her mother had; she did not want to be forced to succumb her entire life as had her mother and many other women. When a sailor asked for her hand in marriage, Eveline jumped at the chance. She saw this as her way out, as a way to change her situation. She thinks, “in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would be not like that. She would not be treated as her mother had been.” (Joyce, 428). This was her chance to change her situation. However, when the time came for her to leave, she backed out. She decided to remain with her life at home with her father rather than move on and marry this sailor. She had the chance of freedom and did not take advantage of it. Why did Eveline decide to stay with her role of submission? She was afraid of change. “In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her.” (Joyce, 428). Her home and the people around her were familiar. With change she didn’t know what to expect. At least at home, even if it was not the best situation, she knew her place and her role. Also, submission was the only love she had known. Her father and his tyrannical ways were the only life she had ever experienced. While Eveline is thinking and deciding whether or not to leave with the sailor, she reflects back on her life and says, “It was hard work-a hard life-but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.” Even though she was not delighted by her current role, she found comfort in its familiarity and found security in knowing what her role was. Eveline even convinced herself that her father wasn’t that bad. She says, “Her father was becoming old lately, she noticed; he would miss her. Sometimes he could be very nice.” (Joyce, 429). Like many women in the same situation, and like the young wife in “The Hand”, Eveline saw the male that is oppressing her as not evil. She almost convinces herself that he is good, that he doesn’t mean to be dominant and abusive. His behavior is tolerable because it is familiar and can be kind. She, as many women, feels that succumbing and caring for the household and the male is her duty. She is scared by change. This fear was so strong that she would rather resign to the male dominance.
These stories depict many of the reasons behind the formation and the continuation of these roles of dominance and submission. It began a long time ago with the male being physically dominant, and then assumed supremacy in relationships. The women were forced physically or verbally or emotionally to obey and comply. Now, with advances in women’s rights and the expansion of women’s role in the workplace and society, they are given a chance to abolish or escape these roles. Yet, many of the women do not take this chance. Maybe they feel it is their duty, or are just scared of the change as Eveline did. Or perhaps the women do not recognize the male supremacy, as the young wife in “The Hand” initially did not. For whatever reason, it is strong enough so that the women continue to accept these roles as they have for hundreds of years. These will not change until either the women decide to change and not succumb to men, and society cease to breed these roles into the minds of the children.
The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Michael Meyer. Bedford / St. Martin’s, Boston, 2000.
Joyce, James. “Eveline”. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Michael Meyer. Bedford / St. Martin’s, Boston, 2000.
Sidonie-Gabrielle, Colette. “The Hand”. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Michael Meyer. Bedford / St. Martin’s, Boston, 2000.