A little too much patriarchy

I’m reading Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Palace Walk right now and enjoying it greatly; it’s a long, rich, satisfying read, about a family in Cairo after World War I (although I had to look up the date, which I couldn’t figure out from the novel itself — this is probably my fault for not getting historical references). It’s the kind of book you can live with for a long time; it moves slowly but in a good way, giving you lots of detail about setting and character. It feels like a Victorian novel in a lot of ways, as one of its main preoccupations is getting the young people properly married.

Its resemblance to Victorian novels is making me realize that I’ve been reading an awful lot about how much life used to suck for women — which is not to say that it doesn’t suck today, at least for some, especially outside of the Western world. But still — Palace Walk right after The Crimson Petal and the White reminds me of just how grim life could be. Yesterday I wrote about how Faber’s novel describes the impossibilities women faced in Victorian society, so I won’t repeat that. In Palace Walk, the situation seems even worse, although the women in the novel haven’t yet expressed any dissatisfaction. Here, the two young daughters, as respectable women eligible for marriage, are not allowed to be seen by any man, not even through through a window. They spend their days in the house, mostly doing housework, as far as I can tell. They have little education. The mother — the whole family actually — defers to every whim and desire of the father. The mother is little more than a glorified servant.

I’m not surprised by this at all, but it does make me long to read something with a more feminist bent to it, and soon. I remember people mentioning that Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness has an interesting take on gender; perhaps this is a good possibility?

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

10 responses to “A little too much patriarchy

  1. I’ve got Palace Walk on my TBR list. It’s get to be sort of depressing after awhile, doesn’t it, reading about women’s lack of freedoms. Left Hand of Darkness will definitely be an antidote, though maybe not in the way you expect. Don’t let stop you from jumping in though!

  2. hepzibah

    I feel the same way Dorothy — I am tired of reading about the oppression and confinement of women, and I want to find something more feminist and hopeful!

  3. verbivore

    Palace Walk was required reading when I entered college as a freshman and I remember thinking a) how cool it was to have homework before I even got to school (it didn’t take me long to get over this nerdy idea) and b) that it was a really great book. It introduced me to Mahfouz and I’ve loved most of his other work since then. Miramar is a favorite.

    I just finished Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers – talk about depressing situations for women to live in! Despite that, I enjoyed the book immensely.

  4. How interesting to read these two books back-to-back, and I can certainly understand your need for something to buck you up at this point concerning the fate of women in past and present society. I’d recommend reading some Rose Macaulay for that. The Towers of Trebizond or Crewe Train would be especially good. Also, M.F.K. Fisher’s Gatronomically Me is a wonderful portrayal of a woman who seemed to have lived life, quite successfully, just the way she wanted, regardless of societal demands.

  5. I remember when Jenclair was reading this–I think she made some similar observations. In any case she liked it (from what I remember) and I mooched the first couple of books in this trilogy. I know I complain a lot sometimes about how boring my life is (the same things day in and out), but really I am quite lucky in comparison!! Life sounded quite oppressive for women–I would literally have gone mad, I think!

  6. I was impressed with Palace Walk, especially with the way Mahfouz was able to pull the reader into the family, but I found it oppressive (for the same reasons you did) and will not follow up on the trilogy. I reviewed it here: http://bookgarden.blogspot.com/2007/03/palace-walk.html

  7. JoAnn

    If you choose to read the entire trilogy, you will see improvement in the lives of these women and their offspring. It’s a slow read and sometimes a bit too political for my taste, but well worth the time and effort.

  8. JoAnn

    Oh..I think this is the first time I’ve left a comment here, though I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for a while now. Sorry I don’t have one of my own to direct you to…maybe some day!

  9. I wish I had a direction to point you in but I don’t. I found the contrast of womens’ roles in The Mists of Avalon interesting, and certainly the Druid women lived beautifully, but eventually it’s all destroyed by the Christians, sooo – I remember enjoying Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior which discusses both a female lack of power but also how the heroine harnesses the myths of her childhood for herself, finding power there…

  10. Stefanie — how interesting — you’ve got me excited to read the Le Guin to find out what you mean!

    Hepzibah — yeah, I find I need a balance. I definitely want to read older stuff where the portrayal of women is sometimes troublesome, but I can’t do too much of it at once, I’ve found.

    Verbivore — ack! I just had the chance to buy a cheap copy of The Buccaneers, and I passed it up!

    Emily — of course Macaulay is the antidote! ;) I will simply have to read her, won’t I?

    Danielle — indeed, there’s nothing like this sort of novel to make me realize just how good we have it today!

    Thank you for the link, Jenclair! I will check out your thoughts.

    JoAnn — thank you for commenting! You have me interested in reading on the trilogy. And if you do start a blog, let me know so I can check it out.

    Courtney — I liked The Woman Warrior quite a bit — that’s a good suggestion. Your brief description of the Mists of Avalon intrigues me …

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