The Relationship between Women in Early Twentieth Century Women's Literature
In twenty first century pop culture, relationships between women are portrayed as being tightly knit and balanced as displayed by characters from the book The Friday Night Knitting Club or the television show Sex and the City. While women in twenty first century media very often have a female antagonist, there are the female friends to whom she can turn to when in need of support. However, when comparing early twenty first century media to early twentieth century equivalents, there is a marked difference in the interaction between women. Literature written in the early twentieth century by women takes a significantly different look at relationships between women. When comparing and contrasting the relationships between women in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Awakening by Kate Chopin as well as Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar there lies the subtle indication that only in a utopian world can a healthy, non-antagonistic relationship between women exist.
The very basic relationships or the ones that are initially formed are within the family unit, between parent and child. The women of Herland are essentially one large family unit, one in which motherhood is the primary goal to be achieved, and the relationship between mother and child, no matter the biological connection, is a healthy one. The mothers of Herland are entirely available for their children at every waking moment ready and willing to provide comfort, guidance, understanding, and a helping hand. In contrast, however, Esther Greenwood's relationship with her own mother in The Bell Jar hardly strikes the same chords as the women of Herland. During Esther's hospitalization instead of offering comfort and understanding Mrs. Greenwood assails her daughter with guilt, mentioning that Esther "had used up almost all her money" and that she should be appreciative of Mrs. Guinea's financial aid otherwise she would be in a "big state hospital" (Plath 185). "I hate her" (Plath 203) Esther tells her therapist Doctor Nolan when talking about Mrs. Greenwood and serves to be the culminating statement of their relationship. Whether or not the assertion of hate made by Esther is indeed sincere or stems from her mental state is unclear, however, by merely making such a profound statement and in the context in which it is made displays the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. While it is easy to draw conclusions from Herland and The Bell Jar in regard to the relationship between mother and daughter, in The Awakening it is slightly more difficult given the fact that there is little to draw upon in reference. The Awakening's protagonist, Edna Pontellier, lost her mother at a very early age and very little is mentioned in regard to any influence her mother may have had in her life. However, still within the familial relationship, Edna briefly mentions a sister, Janet, and it can be assumed based on Edna's refusal to attend her sister's wedding in chapter twenty three that the two are not close. The very basic unit of female companionship in The Bell Jar and The Awakening create a polar opposite to what is witnessed in Herland in the familial sense.
The distinctions between female relationships become further removed between the societies of The Awakening and The Bell Jar from Herland as friendships are explored. In the all female nation of Herland, the women work and live together not only as one large extended family but also as friends, a relationship best reflected by the characters Ellador, Celis, and Alima. These three young women mark the quintessential twenty-first century friendship. While the audience does not witness the friendship between them directly, it is safe to assume that Ellador, Celis, and Alima find one another companionable enough to spend the amount of time they do around each other. Further evidence suggests that they trust one another enough to confide the darkest truths to each other as the narrator Van suggests when he notes that he "got a pretty clear account of [Alima's rape by Terry] from Ellador" (Gilman 132). In contrast, Edna in The Awakening confides "a good part" of her troubles to Madame Ratignolle, she does "not reveal so much" (Chopin 25) of it as to completely expose herself. On a very superficial level, Edna and Madam Ratignolle might, by Victorian standards, be considered friends; however, the reader senses more antagonism and completion between them. Edna shows element of scorn toward Madam Ratignolle as she describes her as the "mother-woman" in chapter four sewing a baby's garment "designed for winter wear, when treacherous drafts came down chimneys and insidious currents of deadly cold found their way through key-holes" (Chopin 11). The Bell Jar's Esther Greenwood also shares the same type of superficial friendship with Doreen as Edna does with Madam Ratignolle. While Esther and Doreen spend time with one another, there lacks the intimate quality on which real, solid friendships, like Celis, Ellador, and Alima share, are built. It is further shown that Esther cares no more deeply for Doreen than she would any stranger she would meet with on the streets of New York City, when Esther decides "to dump [a drunk Doreen] on the carpet and shut and lock [her] door and go back to bed" (Plath 22).
Ironically, all three novels feature environments in which the primary inhabitants are female, and yet still only Herland is capable of sustaining an ideal coexistence.