In both the excerpts from Karen van der Zee’s novel “A Secret Sorrow” and in Gail Godwin’s short story “A Sorrowful Woman,” the plots center on ideas of marriage and family. Conversely, marriage and family are presented in very different lights in the two stories. Karen van der Zee presents marriage with children as perfect and completely fulfilling; it is what Faye, the protagonist of “A Secret Sorrow”, wants and what is necessary to her happiness. For Godwin’s unnamed protagonist, marriage and family are almost the antithesis of happiness; her home life seems to suffocate hear and eventually leads her to death. “A Secret Sorrow” directly endorses and encourages marriage, whereas “A Sorrowful Woman” indirectly questions and discourages it.
Both of the female protagonists in the two stories experience a conflict. In “A Secret Sorrow” Faye’s conflict comes before the marriage. She is struck with misery and torment because she cannot have children and fears that this will prevent her from marrying the man she loves. Both she and her beloved, Kai, desire marriage with children, and van der Zee suggests that only with these things will they truly be happy. Faye feels that her inability to have children is a fatal flaw that cuts her off from Kai’s love. “Every time we see some pregnant woman, every time we’re with somebody else’s children I’ll feel I’ve failed you!” (Zee 35).
Faye’s anxiety and fear are based on the thought of losing her beloved Kai, accompanied by never having children. In “A Sorrowful Woman,” however, the conflict comes after the marriage, when the woman has already secured her husband and child. Unlike Faye, who would be ecstatic in this woman’s situation, the protagonist of Godwin’s story is not. Oddly enough, her husband and son bring her such sorrow that eventually she is unable to see them at all, communicating only through notes stuck under her bedroom door. Godwin’s character has a loving husband and child, yet in spite of this, she is still filled with grief. This sense of defeat is unimaginable when compared to a Harlequin romance because it goes against the assumption that the rest is happily ever after.
In “A Secret Sorrow”, marriage is portrayed as the resolution. Van der Zee works to present the reader with the idea that only with this aspect will Faye be fulfilled and happy; it is what the entire story, with all the plot twists and romantic interludes, works toward. Marriage is also the end in “A Sorrowful Woman” but not as expected: it is quite literally the end of the woman’s life. Though one doesn’t see what her life was like before her emotional crisis, there are hints of it. When she moves into a new bedroom, away from her husband, she mentions seeing the streets from a whole new perspective, which suggests the previous monotony of her daily life. In addition, when the woman bakes pies and bread and washes and folds the laundry, her son says, “She’s tired from doing all our things again,” (Godwin 42). This gives the reader the idea of what “our things” was and what the woman did with her time before her crisis.
The monotony of marriage is absent in “A Secret Sorrow.” Faye’s inability to have children does not end Kai’s love for her, instead, the two go on to marry and adopt children. Faye’s married life is described in a very idyllic way: she raises her son and two daughters in a “white ranch house under the blue skies of Texas” (Zee 37). Once she is married and has children, there is no more anxiety because the plot leads one to the conclusion that marriage solves all problems and is a source of unending happiness. This greatly differs from Godwin’s tale, which takes place in winter and maintains a sense of cold.
Whenever Godwin describes the family, it is in terms that suggest weight, guilt, or failure. The child’s trusting gaze makes the protagonist begin “yelping without tears” (Godwin 39). Any sign of life or love increases her sorrow and makes her want solitary. One case in point is when the hired girl brings her son to visit her with a grasshopper he’s found–something both alive and from the outside world; she gets very upset and forces her husband to fire the girl. It would appear that the girl is too much of an infringement on her space, too much of a reminder of what she can no longer be.
The discrepancy between the two authors’ illustrations of marriage is most apparent when both women are viewing their families. Faye, sitting with her husband and watching her children play, feels that “life was good and filled with love” (Zee 37). Godwin’s protagonist, on the other hand, articulates, “The sight of them made her so sad and sick she did not want to see them ever again” (Godwin 38).When Kai, now her husband, embraces Faye, she feels, “There was love in his embrace and love in his words and in her heart there was no room for doubt, no room for sorrow” (Zee 37). When Godwin’s heroine feels the loving touch of her husband’s arm and the kiss of her child, she cannot bear it any longer and cuts off all direct contact with them. The situation of her marriage forces her into a self-imposed imprisonment and indolence.
She feels agonizingly poignant because she can no longer be who they want and need her to be. She avoids them not because she does not love them but rather because she loves them so much that it is too painful to see them and too troublesome for them to feel her failure. The axiom to Godwin’s story tells us that “Once upon a time there was a wife and a mother one too many times” (Godwin 38). The addition of “one too many times” to this traditional story opening forces the idea of repetition and monotony; it suggests that it is not the state of being a wife and mother that is innately dreadful but rather the fact that that is all Godwin’s character is. Day in and day out, too many times over, the woman is just a wife and a mother, and it isn’t enough for her.
In van der Zee’s story there could be no such thing as too much motherhood or too much of being a wife. When Faye’s fears of losing Kai are assuaged, and she is happily married, it is as though a great weight has been lifted off her. Alternatively, Godwin’s character feels her marriage as a great weight pressing on her which results in her immobilization. When she leaves her room for a day and puts out freshly baked bread for her husband and son, they express their happiness in the notes they write to her that night, and “the force of the two joyful notes…pressed her into the corner of the little room; she hardly had space to breathe” (Godwin 42). Faye can be a traditional wife and mother, so her family is a source of joy. However, in Godwin’s character’s case, she can no longer be the traditional wife and mother, the representation of her own failure, which inevitably draws her guilt to push her further and further into herself until she can retreat no further and ends her life.
The closing stages of the two stories are powerful illustrations of the differences between them. In the end of “A Secret Sorrow” the author shows the reader Faye’s feelings “beautiful, complete, whole” (Zee 38) in her role as a wife and mother. Godwin, on the other hand, leaves the audience with the protagonist dead on her bed. Godwin seems to give the reader hope by showing all that the woman has done when she says, “the house smelled redolently of renewal and spring” (Godwin 42). This makes the misfortune even harder when one discovers, along with the husband and child, the woman’s death. The ambiguous way the death of Godwin’s unnamed protagonist is dealt with reinforces the author’s negative tone towards marriage. It isn’t explicitly written as suicide; however, Godwin seems to encourage her readers to see it as the inevitable consequence of her marriage.
Van der Zee creates a story full of emotional highs and lows, but one that leads up to and ends with marriage. After the marriage all of the plot twists and traumas come to a halt, replaced with peace and happiness. Faye is brought to new life by her marriage and children; she finds fulfillment of all of her desires in them. Godwin’s story, however, is full of post marital anguish and confusion. The character she creates is stifled and unquestionably unfulfilled by her marriage.
A burst of creative energy right before her death produces, among other things, “a sheath of marvelous watercolor beasts accompanied by mad and fanciful stories nobody could ever make up again, and a tablet full of love sonnets addressed to the man” (Godwin 42). It is clear that the woman had talents and desires not met by the routine duties of her marital life. For Faye, the protagonist of “A Secret Sorrow”, marriage is the happily-ever-after ending she has wanted all of her life; for Godwin’s protagonist, marriage is just a monotonous and interminable ever after. In any case, humans cannot bear too much reality.
Godwin, Gail. “A Sorrowful Woman.” 38-42.
Van der Zee, Karen. “A Secret Sorrow.” 30-38.