This paper examines the issues of gender within Janice Galloway’s novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing. The paper considers the identity crisis that the character of Joy Stone in the novel faces and discloses how this crisis is triggered as a result of social oppression. The Trick is to Keep Breathing is primarily a story about the mental health of an individual and tells of how she has suffered to such an extent that she has been plummeted into depression, self-loathing and anorexia. One of the key themes in the book is that of alienation.
The main character, Joy, is suffering from a loss, a loss that is not recognized in the eyes of society; she is the mistress of a dead man. Whilst the family of the man are able to openly grieve and be acknowledged for their position in her lover’s life, she is forced to hide her feelings away, together with her knowledge of her lover’s feelings for her, in her own secret prison. Her position as a mistress leaves her with no place to grieve and the social constraints of society entail she is restrained from mourning.
Social institutions mean that she has no justifiable relationship with Michael and therefore is without purpose, she has no existence. She is thus socially oppressed and such oppression acts as means by which Joy’s identity and place in the world is stripped from her. Joy has no real control over her life. . She is thus trying to grief alone and quietly but her inability to publicly release her feelings and gain recognition for how significant she was in her lover life mean that loses all self respect and she subsequently endures a lifestyle that is devoid of any significance.
She completes her daily chores with very little feeling and her future stretches before her in a daunting and formidable fashion. Even time is meaningless to her. Joy’s depressed and emptiness plays out on both a psychological and a physical level. She is obsessed with her own image and allows her self perception to be negatively impacted by the magazines she reads and the inferior way in which they make her feel. The only way in which she seems capable of having some control over her feelings is through denying herself food.
She attempts to rid herself of her sense of loss and her frustration with the way in which society treats her by starving herself and thus intertwines her identity crisis with her physical body. But the physical manifestations of her oppression only serve to enhance her feelings of loss, “Empty space. I had nothing inside me” (147). She is increasingly becoming separated from the world in which she lives, the people who surround her and even her own body. Gender is of extremely relevance within the novel and her relationships with various male figures such as the doctors, an ex boyfriend and her boss form an important element of the story.
All of the men she encounters are dominant, overpowering characters who, in their own ways, wish Joy to submit to their wishes. Her memories of her ex-lover control her, the doctors think they know what is best for her and wish for her to do as she is told and other characters simply want to seduce her. However, Joy has lost all ability to adhere to the men’s wishes and she suffers a form of breakdown; one which rebels against what is socially expected of her and strives for freedom from the entrapment of the male gaze and their endless orders.
She learns to create meaning for herself, not by adhering to what society deems meaningful but by defining this for herself. By stripping things of the meaning attributed to them by society she is able to rid herself of her oppression and see life in a new light. She learns that she is happier if she doesn’t live by society’s rules and, whilst this may her appear chaotic to an outside audience, it frees her from her personal prison.
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