When Things Fall Apart
My tears are like the quiet drift
Of petals from some magic rose
And all my grief flows from the rift
Of unremembered skies and snows.
– Dylan Thomas
I told myself that I was not Ophelia. Admittedly those are strange words to tell one’s self, but society makes me question whether I am her. Do I lack autonomy? We really only have so much freedom, it is, after all, reduced due to financial circumstances and employment. Those two factors are often linked. Without means how much autonomy really exists? Feminist critics often state that Ophelia lost her identity, but I don’t believe she ever had one. Her sole purpose was to marry well and elevate her family in society. While modern society has changed so much about our identity hasn’t, titles and connections are still important. They make the difference between getting a job or having your interview cancelled days before you’re scheduled to leave for New York City.
She called me Ophelia — when I told my undergraduate English professor that I wanted to write the final paper on Ophelia, I had a binder filled with literary criticism from Elaine Showalter and of course, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. She said ‘of course you do, Ophelia’. Perhaps it was meant a joke but she continued to insinuate that I was most likely to identify with her — this voiceless character. I couldn’t wait for the semester to end and when it did I registered for a course on Hemingway; this proved to be a mistake. I was told time and time again that my criticisms of Hemingway’s text were wrong, instead the problem was I couldn’t understand his ‘masculine language’. Every point I made was challenged as anyone would expected, but the reasons were Othering: ‘you’re just used to Keats and the Romantics. Hemingway’s macho, he gives it to the reader straight’. I couldn’t reconcile why celebrating Hemingway’s masculinity meant marginalizing women. His language is concise and it’s remarkable but his female characters were unsatisfying. If you can’t see the importance of Hemingway you’ll never comprehend American Literature, my professor warned. But I did see the importance in The Sun Also Rises and his other work, I just felt foreign reading them. Every one of his novels became a chore, I eventually stopped engaging in discussions. In a way I became Ophelia — silenced. I wanted to employ gender theories to explore masculinity and female characters, my professor said it was foolish and suggested I stop trying to insert feminism in every piece a literature. Those warnings left me uncertain and the paper was absolutely ordinary, I couldn’t make bold claims for fear of alienating my reader. So I became a cautious writer, ignoring the larger issues and placating to my professor for fear of failing the course. It could have been a stronger paper.
I lost language and found Deconstruction; soon it became my favorite form of literary criticism. Without words true autonomy is impossible and the freedom to reinterpret the meaning of the text — any text is lost. I nearly spent a year with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. The mad papers, specifically Paper X consist of broken language. Clarissa can’t write her rape. She’s unable to find words for the horrific event. Up until her rape, Clarissa’s letters are cohesive and expressive; they reveal complex characters. Although Paper X is disorienting, it is one of the most intense letters in the novel. She was another Ophelia.
In fiction workshop, my writing was gendered; feedback from male classmates was minimal often citing their inability to connect with the main character. If we’re alienated from language, what’s left? Now I wonder what agents see when they read my manuscript, so far I’ve been lucky and have had full requests but the agent I was convinced would represent me has just rejected me. The agent said he admired my writing and found the structure compelling, he pointed to the complexity and haunting nature of the main character; but he said no. He didn’t suggest a revision though and believed the larger narrative may work as it is written. It was utterly disappointing. Of course, there is nothing I can do to change his mind. Now I just wonder if by “othering” the main character I alienated the reader. I know rejections occur every day and I am beyond grateful that such a high profile literary agent read my manuscript, but it doesn’t ease the intense disappointment.
Ophelias spanned hundreds of years…they crossed generations…they wanted a voice. They wanted an identity of their own. Who could blame them? Films romanticized their past, 18th and 19th century women were forced into loveless marriages in order to avoid poverty but most films focus an happy relationships (Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy). What about women who were institutionalized by their husbands? History is constantly rewritten but it’s done in a way that privileges the male perspective. Ophelias remain marginalized in history. With time, we forget them. They disappear from our memory until one day, a human resources representative calls to say they found the right man for the job and you realize that you, too, are Ophelia.