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The Life and Loves of a She-Devil Essay

1. AUTHOR

Fay Weldon (born on 22 September 1931) is an English author, essayist and playwright, whose work has been associated with feminism. In her fiction, Weldon typically portrays contemporary women who find themselves trapped in oppressive situations caused by the patriarchal structure of British society. Weldon was born in Birmingham, England, to a literary family.

Weldon spent her early years in Auckland, New Zealand, where her father worked as a doctor. At the age of 14, after her parents’ divorce, she returned to England with her mother and her sister – never to see her father again. She lived with her mother, sister and grandmother until she started college and, as a result, grew up believing “the world was peopled by females.” She studied psychology and economics in Scotland, but returned to London after giving birth to a son. Soon afterwards she married her first husband, Ronald Bateman and moved to Acton, London. She left him after 2 years and the marriage ended. In order to support herself and her son and provide for his education, Weldon started working in the advertising industry. At 29 she met Ron Weldon, a jazz musician and antiques dealer. They married and had 3 sons.

It was during her second pregnancy that Weldon began writing for radio and television. A few years later, in 1967, she published her first novel “The Fat Woman’s Joke”. For the next 30 years she built a very successful career, publishing over 20 novels, collections of short stories, films for television, newspaper and magazine articles and becoming a well-known face and voice on the BBC. She divorced in 1994 and subsequently married Nick Fox, a poet who is also her manager, with whom she currently lives in Dorset.

Her primary subject – the lives of women trapped by domestic duties, abusive, adulterous or neglectful husbands and the demands of small children – has defined her as one of the leading literary propagandists for sexual egalitarianism in the post-war period. Her approach to form is experimental and self-conscious. Her spare, economic prose pares back its descriptions to bare essentials, relying heavily on dialogue, multiple voices, present-tense narrative and short, punchy paragraphing.

2. THE PLOT

“The Life and Loves of a She-Devil” is Fay Weldon’s best, funniest, most readable novel yet. It takes every mistreated wife’s fantasies of revenge on every spoiled, philandering husband and explodes them into a wild, fast-moving and outrageously perverse fable of the battle between men and women and between women and women. The message that we get from Weldon is that women are trapped by their addiction to men’s own addiction to pretty women. The writer does more than give a voice to a modern mad wife, however; through this voice, Weldon raises larger questions about narrative transformations and the bodily violence they produce.

The main character, Ruth, is tall (too tall to “look up to men”), heavy and unattractive. She is married to handsome Bobbo, who was forced into the wedding because Ruth became pregnant. They have 2 troublesome children, a suburban house and several pets. Bobbo is extremely unhappy with his domestic situation and Ruth is constantly humiliated by her attempts to please him. But when her husband leaves her for Mary Fisher, Ruth finds that she craves to be “part of that other erotic world, of choice and desire and lust. It isn’t love I want; it is nothing so simple. What I want is to take everything and return nothing.

What I want is power over the hearts and pockets of men” – which is nothing that has not been heard before in countless sexist stories about predatory women. Ruth has had enough: enough domestic drudgery and slavish devotion. She decides to become a “she-devil”, a creature without guilt or shame and go after what she wants: power, money and sex. She burns down her suburban home, dumps her children on Mary Fisher and murders the pet guinea pig. In addition, she ensures that Mary Fisher’s mother gets turned out of her nursing home, thereby sending old Mrs. Fisher back to live with Mary.

In this way, Ruth brings domestic pressure into Mary Fisher’s life, something Mary had always avoided. She also ruins Bobbo’s business and has him sent to jail for embezzling funds from his clients. Next, Ruth goes to live with the judge in charge of Bobbo’s case and she manages to convince him to give Bobbo a severe jail sentence. Mary’s career is destroyed, her fortunes are depleted by hiring lawyers to free Bobbo and she ultimately gets cancer and dies.

Ruth’s subsequent adventures in the world of the working women are not contributions to her own personal liberation, but stages on the route towards avenging herself on her husband and his mistress. She exacts revenge by transforming herself through plastic surgery into the exact double of the writer, destroying both her husband and his mistress, but also losing her entire identity: “We are as God made us”, her surgeon protests, to which she answers “That isn’t true. We are here in this world to improve upon his original idea. To create justice, truth and beauty where He so obviously and lamentably failed”. Again, the text reconfirms the concept of the female body as the object of necessary transformations into the ideal; woman’s body, as her self, cannot be accepted as natural or right, but must be remade. Part of Ruth’s plan is to reject all her conventional female traits, since her unconventional body only asserts her failure to be female.

The reader, however, is left wondering why so much effort goes into the making of a powerful woman who wants nothing but her man and what is worse, not even a New Man, but the same one she had in the first place: an ordinary, suburban man, a well-to-do accountant and a very insipid father and husband. At the end of the story he is almost nothing at all, for a spell in prison due to Ruth’s machinations against him has turned him into a complete physical and emotional wreck.

3. ELEMENTS OF THE NOVEL

Fay Weldon’s novel can be even regarded as a science-fiction novel; the ugly heroine Ruth employs all the resources of medical science, including radical plastic surgery, to remake her body to the image of her hated arch-rival Mary Fisher. The novel is full of physical details: Ruth is 6 foot 2, her handsome husband, Bobbo, is 5 foot 10, and his lover, Mary Fisher is 5 foot 4. Ruth’s physical body is not ideal and that is why she tries disembodying herself, silencing her voice. She is initially so submissive that she does not consistently have her own voice; the narrative alternates between Ist and IIIrd person.

In moments of doubt she recites the “Litany of the Good Wife,” which articulates the double standard of unequal marriage, including such axioms as: “I must pretend to be happy when I am not; for everyone’s sake”; “I must be grateful for the roof over my head and the food on my table, and spend my days showing it, by cleaning and cooking and jumping up and down from my chair; for everyone’s sake”, “I must build up my husband’s sexual confidence, I must not express any sexual interest in other men, in private or public” because “I must render him moral support in all his undertakings, however immoral they may be, for the marriage’s sake” and “I must pretend in all matters to be less than he” (p. 23).

The discourse of transformations in Weldon’s novel tells 2 distinct stories: one, the seemingly innocent desires to be better, to be an Ugly Duckling growing into beauty, to be a heroine; the other, the more violent tale of self-loathing, self-destruction as a means of improvement, where the body itself becomes the site of struggle. The moral of the story is not learning to love the body you have, but fighting to have the body you can love. Unlike the Ugly Duckling story, this is not a natural process, but a surgical one.

Hiding her past identity, Ruth becomes a discourse of absence; as her body shrinks in every dimension: height, jaw, teeth, limbs and all her story seems to represent the symptoms of femaleness itself. Her presence becomes absence of self, of physical identity. She presents herself literally as the other woman. Thus, the death of the self through self-directed violence becomes the transformation that allows the happy ending. But that is the twist of the novel. Rather than returning to the body, Ruth confiscates her own body.

Ruth may destroy her husband, she may destroy her rival, but the power she takes on is the most conventional one: she kills her self, her body, so that she can be remade into the image of Mary Fisher, the beautiful woman, the heroine. Like other women, then, she wants a body that fits the rules. She becomes, in the doctors’ words, a “Venus,” a “Pygmalion,” “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” (p. 225). Impossible indeed; the body is surgically, painfully produced and maintained. And it is a male fantasy; she can desire no self other than the self designed by male desire. Her body remains her text.

In many of Weldon’s works both male and female infidelity are responsible for the dissolution of marriages. This novel is critical of the roles both men and women play in supporting the ideal image of feminine beauty. The protagonist embarks on a painful course of plastic surgery to become the object of male fantasies. Such works not only rupture any assumed alliance between women and Nature, but also speculate ambiguously on the consequences of scientific advancements for the politics of female identity. Weldon is known for infusing her works of social commentary with biting wit and grotesque imagery.

But while she usually presents a dark picture of the female condition and the state of gender relations, she also frequently ends her books on a hopeful note. The heroine of this novel isn’t, however, a horrific monster, nor is the novel a horror tale. The novel blends fantasy and irony in the portrait of a larger-than-life, grotesque female protagonist who is presented as a triumphant woman. Our heroine is a grotesque monster both because of her formidable body and her singular behaviour. Yet her encounters with apparently normal people in the different episodes reveal that monstrosity is not a matter of extraordinary physical appearance, but of whether one sides with the abusers or the abused in the universal contest for power. She is in most intimate terms with the shortcomings of her gigantic body. Hers is the grotesque body that, according to Bakhtin, is a body always in the making, never completely finished, ever ready to create another body.

Apart from the wry humour and the use of Gothic elements, the text also shares a picaresque framework: loosely connected episodes are used to highlight the heroine’s resolute breaking down of conventions associated with proper feminine behaviour. In her struggle to simply go on living, this monstrous woman learns, above all, the meaning of power: if she is a special woman in any sense, this is not because she is a grotesque freak, but because she learns to limit the power of the others over her and to use her own power to steer the course of her lives in the direction she chooses. As things are, the novel suggests that it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. That is to say, that seeing ourselves as triumphant monsters is a step forward in comparison to the humiliation of having men portray us as abject monsters. Hence, the sense of triumph. Yet, this seems to be a very limited solution, quite inadequate to make post-feminist women, if this is what we are, consider the dangers of not facing our own weaknesses. What is more, it is still too bound to patriarchal man’s view of woman as an eminently physical object.

Ruth serves no one except herself. She has only her own interests at heart. Her ideas about reuniting with her husband are bizarre. Her employment agency is anything but a “do-good” operation designed to help women. She abandons the agency after it accomplishes its purpose and we never hear about it again.

The novel comes full circle, with Ruth, now Mary, living in Mary’s house with Ruth’s husband/Mary’s lover, living Mary’s successful romance.

4. CRITICS

“The life and loves of a she-devil” comments on the violence of cultural demands for female bodies resulting in selfloathing, in anorexia or even suicide. Written with a feminist swerve, the novel illustrates the speaking body that destroys both men and women, both the other and the self. By mastering female seduction and male deduction, Ruth violently revises the story of her life. In the process she kills herself, but gains her own voice, her own pen, as she writes the story of her transformation into the object of her husband’s desire and perhaps her own desire.

Weldon’s novel states directly what Brontë avoided: the violent cost of love and marriage for female identity in a world where women must be angelic beauties, where the body rather than the spirit must be improved, where violence is turned against women’s bodies by women themselves in the name of self-improvement, transformation and beauty. Jane Eyre outlives her rival, Bertha, but in Weldon’s novel the rivals for the unhappy wife, Ruth, are fictional, mass-produced romantic heroines, so the ideal body is already a symbolic construct, not flesh-and-blood, but a text.

Weldon’s novel asks whether a woman who does not look like a heroine can do it. Ruth is not betrayed by her mind, as Bertha Rochester is, but by her body, by her size, by her failure to look and therefore be feminine. Ruth’s response is not renunciation of her embodied voice, or of desire, but renunciation of her excessive self.

This novel questions the limits of femininity and of woman’s body without facing the paranoia and the sense of humiliation endured by many contemporary male characters of the contemporary grotesque. The celebration of the phallus is totally out of question in these times of troubled masculinity, but women have re-invented the carnivalesque image of the female body in order to use it to their own advantage. By creating grotesque female monsters they deny men the privilege of being the sole producers of monstrous portraits of women. Seemingly, contemporary women writers are not interested in considering how woman shares in the humiliation of contemporary man and prefer instead taking female monstrosity away from the hands of patriarchy.

Fay Weldon observed that when writing this novel she slowly drifted from the more active feminism of the first half to the conformist outlook of the second half. Her refusal to commit herself to the feminist cause is in itself the reason why her books are so provocative, and so ambiguous, but it is also the reason why the edge of a novel such as “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil” is blunt.

The parody in this novel is not Rabelaisian, but modern parody. Following Bakhtin, this means that it is incapable of regeneration through laughter though it can articulate a great deal of bitterness. The difference between Rabelaisian and modern parody lies in the process that Bakhtin traces and that leads to the repression of laughter beginning in the Renaissance. An essential quality of laughter in popular celebrations, Bakhtin argues, is that it includes all: there is no separation between those who are laughed at and those who laugh. And the laughter is provoked, of course, by the celebration of the grotesque in human life, through the body or through language.

Susan Jaret McKinstry in her article called “Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil: The Speaking Body” states that this is a darkly humorous novel in which Weldon is not writing a murder story in the traditional sense, and the deaths of the characters are less simple than the stabbing of Alec D’Urberville, the blinding of Rochester, and other violent acts explained by the “gentle” motives of desperate women. Yet the process of self-destruction here is even more direct, and since it is located in a hatred of the physical body it has much in common with anorexia nervosa.

Critics find Weldon’s satires on gender relations and contemporary issues, such as cloning and nuclear terror, witty and scathing. Some reviewers have commented on the increasing bitterness of her later works, finding them too hopeless and grim to offer any kind of satisfying resolution to readers; others believe her characterizations of men are shallow and overly negative.

Still, Weldon’s astute social observations and outrageously inventive plots have earned her both critical praise and a loyal popular readership.Paradoxically, whereas the contemporary literature of the grotesque written by men mirrors man’s pessimistic existentialism and his sense of humiliation, women celebrate the female grotesque. They celebrate excess because excess and the power that accompanies it are seen as the solution to counteract the patriarchal model of controlled femininity. But they do not consider in depth how triumphant excess and humiliation can be bound together and this is their weakest point. What is missing, then, in “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil” is the power to make women face up to the monster in them.

Love is at once the “evil” force in the book, woman’s enemy, and at the same time, it is the only way we can make the “landscape better.” Clearly, this novel fits perfectly into the definition of women’s comedy. It is without a simplistic “happy ending.” Ruth’s decision to give up her husband, her family, and all of society’s normal requirements for a woman illustrates perfectly the destruction of the existing social order. And, finally, it is as clear a portrait of a woman taking action as ever there was.


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