Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Madeleine L'Engle

When I was a teenager, I was a fan of Madeleine L'Engle.  I bought as many books of hers as I could.  That is long since past.

Now I am not much impressed by her work.  One thing is that certain things repeatedly in her books:

  • the alcoholic parent or parent-figure
  • the alcoholic parent or parent-figure who makes sexual advances on the child
  • a beloved mother figure, not a biological mother, a passionate artist
  • the disruptive child adopted when his or her parents die
  • the wise, kind, older man who comforts and counsels the main characters
  • the awkward misfit girl in boarding school
  • the girl in boarding school betrayed by a classmate who was once her friend
  • the attractive young man with pale skin, dark hair, and tormented soul
  • the beloved child, a boy about 5-6 years old
  • the death of a beloved child
  • the wife struggling to forgive betrayal by her husband
  • the priest, the doctor, the scientist, the musician, the writer, the actor -- this seems to cover most of the career options in her world
  • the vehicle that veered onto the sidewalk and hit a child
  • people being injured or killed in car accidents
She wrote from the prejudices of her time.  She came from a world in which everyone was wealthy, well-educated, white, and heterosexual, and you can see how this leads to certain assumptions in her writing.  I think that in later books she struggles to expand, but falls short of the mark.  For example, in A House Like a Lotus and A Severed Wasp she struggles to accept homosexuality, but to me it comes across as if she is saying we must love everyone, and judge them only their kindness to others, and not on their distasteful sexual proclivities.

I most recently read The Love Letters.  I hope none of my loved ones read it and think they ought to adopt its attitudes.  It was written in a time when it was normal for men to have careers and women not to. In that situation, if the woman wants more from the relationship than the man does, well, according to L'Engle, she just needs to live with the imbalance.  It seems to me that if she found something to do outside the home, whether a paid job or volunteer work, but some way of being useful to the world at large, she would be happier, and so would her husband, because she would not be looking to him for all her fulfillment.

That book also comes from a time when pregnant women thought nothing of drinking alcoholic beverages.  And a time when, according to L'Engle, women who refuse sex with their husbands because they are angry are just as sinful as prostitutes, because in both cases, they are using sex for personal gain.  In this book, the husband refers to a particular sexual encounter with his wife as "rape."  She in no way suggests that this sexual encounter was wrong.  In fact, afterwards, the wife is filled with love for her husband.

And it's a book in which a wife must love her husband and honor her commitment to him, even if he is cruel to her, puts her down, cheats on her.

The racist, sexist, heterosexist, and classist attitudes in her writing are so invisible to her, because they are a part of her culture.  They are part of her world view.  She is a person who thinks deeply about moral questions, but there are some things that she just can't see.

Imagine what it would be like to live in that world.  What would it be like to be a wife and to feel that you are at fault if having no work outside that home leaves you feeling unfilled? What it would be like to feel you must be a bad wife if you fail to forgive when your husband puts you down and cheats on you? What it would like to feel you must submit whenever your  husband wants to have sex with you?

I do appreciate that love is about giving, that it involves sacrifice and compromise, that I also believe that I have my own core, and that I need to look out for myself as well, and that I must leave a relationship if that relationship diminishes me.  

And of course, as Madeleine L'Engle wears the blinders of her time, so I wear the blinders of my time.  And as she cannot see her blinders, neither can I see mine.  The age difference between L'Engle and me is about the same as the age gap between babies born this year and me.  So some day, babies born this year will look back at my writing and be appalled at  how blinded I was by the prejudices of my time.  

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