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William Shakespeare believed that our identity is influenced by the roles we fulfill in life, or put differently, by our actions. When individuals deviate from their assigned roles, it can lead to uncertainty about who they are. This phenomenon is evident in various facets of daily existence. For instance, a young father who assumes caregiving responsibilities for his child may be commended, whereas a young mother in a comparable scenario may encounter disapproval. Although having norms and expectations can serve a purpose, there exists a danger when these conventions become excessively rigid and all-encompassing.
Women have always faced rigid societal expectations, including pressure to balance career and family responsibilities. Gloria Steinem notes that men are not scrutinized for prioritizing work over marriage like women are. These strict norms make it difficult for women to break free and be true to themselves.
Guy de Maupassant, in his short story "Old Mother Savage" (1885), illustrates the confusion and despair that individuals experience when they are forced out of their traditional roles, causing them to question their identity and purpose.
The main character, a mother in German occupied France, is stripped of her conventional roles as a wife and mother. Left with no other means to define her existence, she resorts to violent and self-destructive behavior. Through this narrative, Maupassant highlights the potential for individuals, particularly women with restricted roles, to turn towards aggression towards themselves and others.
Maupassant vividly portrays how women in nineteenth century France's countryside presented themselves. The narrator's friend, Serval, describes one woman as "not timid at all.
...tall and gaunt, not one to joke around with...the men have fun at the inn, but the women are always serious" (p. 161). Victoire Simon, also known as Old Mother Savage, is kind yet secluded. She once offered Maupassant wine as an act of kindness when he passed by her cottage fifteen years earlier, showing her hospitality (p. 160). Serval suggests that a reserved demeanor is common among the women in the area.
Maupassant introduces a woman to his audience who has been instructed on specific behaviors and appearances. This woman conceals her "tightly bound...grey hair" from public view through her dress. She was trained in responsibilities and never acquired the ability to smile broadly. When Victoire is introduced in Maupassant's story, her essence is inseparable from the roles of being a wife and mother. Like the rest of the wives in their area, she is defined solely by her obligations as a wife or mother.
Victoire faces three challenges to her identity. The first is when her father, a poacher, is shot by police many years ago. Although this loss affects her identity as a wife, she still sees herself as a mother. Despite her husband's actions leading to consequences, Victoire continues to fulfill her role as a mother by managing the household and caretaking duties diligently.
During the Franco-Prussian War, Victoire's son goes to fight, leaving her alone and without anyone to care for except herself. She fulfills her duty by only going to the village once a week to buy bread and meat, then quickly returns home. She only does what is essential for survival, as her sole purpose in life is to be a mother, with no time for socializing or personal indulgence.
The arrival of the Prussians dealt a fatal blow to her identity. Due to her perceived wealth, she was forced to accommodate four German soldiers who took on tasks typically done by her own son. She cooked and cared for them as if they were her own, finding purpose in being a mother to these surrogate sons. However, when she learned of her real son's death in the war, her world crumbled. With her husband already deceased and now her son gone, she felt lost and purposeless. This led her to seek a form of revenge that would not only make others suffer like she has, but also result in her own death as consequence of her actions.
Suddenly, the four German sons transformed into four German soldiers, the enemy. According to the text on page 162, "Simple folk don't go in for the luxuries of patriotic hatred...the poor and lowly...pay the heaviest price...their masses are killed off wholesale." These German soldiers, like those billeting in her home, were responsible for killing her son. It is plausible that she might have believed a German mother was caring for her son just as she was caring for the German men, being a "simple folk" with limited understanding of the complexities of war beyond the soldiers staying with her. Thus, not only did German soldiers kill her son, but a German mother also failed to protect her own child. In a meticulously planned act formed in a brief afternoon after learning her son's fate, Victoire takes revenge by killing the soldiers. She sets fire to her cottage with the soldiers trapped inside, and when questioned by a German Officer about the blaze, she calmly responds, "'I lighted it, myself.'" She then produces two papers from her pocket.
'That's about Victor's [her son] death.' 'That's their names, so that you can write to their homes.' 'Tell them [the German mothers] how it happened, and tell them it was I who did it, Victoire Simon, that they call the Savage. Don't forget.'" In order to ease her grief, she wanted other mothers to suffer as much as she was suffering. She knew she would be shot for her actions; she was probably counting on it. She could easily have lied. She could have told the German Officer just about any excuse, but she didn't. What did she have to live for? She had no purpose for living without her husband and son. Her society, by placing limited and ridged identity roles on its women, robbed her of the ability to discover an identity within herself separate from family. Therefore, she did the only thing she could do--take revenge on the closest target and be sure she did not survive the experience.
Maupassant argues in five short pages for the importance of avoiding restricting women to specific identity roles. The consequences of limiting women can be disastrous, as seen in the death of four soldiers and the destruction of Serval's chateau by the Prussians due to Victoire's actions. If women have a broader sense of identity beyond societal expectations, they may find purpose in life rather than resorting to destructive actions like revenge.
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