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The understanding of attraction between opposite sexes and the impact they have on each other has qualities of both mystery and accessibility. These complex issues are elusive and cannot be fully comprehended. Only small pieces of knowledge about them have been captured in literature, in scientific and analytical studies, and in individual’s search and speculations.
Two literary works by Pam Houston and Doris Lessing explore some aspects of this puzzling and complex issue concerning relationships between men and women and their behavior. In her short story, “How to Talk to a Hunter,” Houston describes different ways women position themselves in relation to men, and points out the contradictions that the main character experiences, while trying to coexist with the man she is in a relationship with. Lessing in her narrative “Woman on a Roof” portrays the behavior of men towards a free and independent-thinking woman who sunbathes on the roof near the one they are working on, and remains indifferent to their attention and provocations. These real life examples described by the two authors are reflected in the theoretical analyses of male and female behaviors and models of the differences in the perceptions of opposite sexes documented by Carol Gilligan in her essay “Woman’s Place in Man’s Life Cycle” and Carolyn Steedman in her extract “Histories.” The two literary works by Houston and Lessing supported by the analytical theories of Gilligan and Steedman describe the life as it is, where the harmonious coexistence of male and females is not present, where the forces that attract two individuals are stronger that their minds, and where the behavior of the out of norm women evokes anger and frustration in men.
Two very different women depicted in Houston’s and Lessing’s fiction stories are placed in different positions in the progression of the narratives. Houston’s main character has an active role. She is the one who searches for meaning, tries to understand the man she is in a relationship with, and looks for the answers to questions that bother her. The reader accompanies her in these explorations as a silent and invisible witness. In contrast, in Lessing’s work the sunbathing woman is a blank space. Everything we know about her is through the observations of men working on the roof adjoining hers and their discourses about her. She does not lead the narrative; instead her silence invites the reader to ask questions, understand and analyze the behavior of men.
Through the narrative positions assumed by the two female characters, the reader is made aware of the different social positions and behaviors that define them. Houston portrays a woman whose views are shaped by social and cultural conditions according to which women “attract men by whose name she will be known, by whose status she will be defined” (Gilligan 396). Despite her intelligence, self-awareness and complete understanding of her situation, the main character of Houston’s work stays in the relationship with the man who “cannot speak the same language” with her, whose values differ from hers, and who is unfaithful to her (Houston 709). The hunter appeals to her primal urges that he embodies. His life and he himself is basic and simple, as her desires for protection, sexual pleasure and commitment are.
She is longing for a commitment and commitment from the man she is involved with, because she is “threatened by separation,” and “comes to know herself through the relationships with others,” and because she needs to gain security (Gilligan 396). The male character, on another hand, tries to avoid binding himself in the relationship and therefore “forms the sentences so it will be impossible to tell if [the narrator] is included in his plans” (Houston 708). He is frightened of attachment since his “masculinity is defined through separation” and independence (Gilligan 393).
The narrator in Houston’s short story is capable of recognizing her dependence on men, their controlling behavior, and her need for security, but she is trapped within her feelings, her desires for the hunter and the norms imposed by society. Similarly, the watercress girl and Dora described in Steedman’s work “Histories” are trapped within economic factors and social morals of their time respectively. The watercress girl is born into financially insecure family, which shapes her identity, while Dora’s value in the social world is determined by what she possesses, not by her individuality.
In contrast to the woman portrayed by Houston who wants to be “rescued from emptiness and loneliness by man, the main character of Doris Lessing’s narrative, “Woman on a Roof” seeks the separation from men and is attracted to their attention (Gilligan 396). She remains unresponsive to all attempts of the three construction workers to make her take a notice of them. The sunbathing woman’s indifferent attitude towards these men of distinct ages evokes a strong reaction from them.
Harry, the oldest of the three men accepts the woman’s presence and attitude with relative tolerance, but for the younger men she becomes an object that mirrors their own sexual insecurities and desires. In Stanley she arouses aggressiveness that shows his anxious state of mind. She also awakens a sense of fear within him because she reminds him that his own wife is also a woman, capable of being independent and unashamed of her body. More that anything else he is afraid of not being able to control her. Tom, the youngest, has erotic dreams about the woman and sees her tenderly. He perceives her as an object that he owns. This sense of ownership is derived from the idea that women should obey men and that she belongs to him in his dreams. Even before talking to her, he says that “she had betrayed him by not being” where he wanted her to be (Lessing 187). But when he approaches her, she rejects him and he “gets drunk in hatred of her” (Lessing 189).
By developing the feelings of hate and anger the three men try to recover the acceptance of her complete indifference to them. By constantly annoying her with whistling and attempts to get her attention they hope that it would evoke at least an angry reaction from her and that would prove their position of dominance to them. In order to achieve this they are even willing to “clamber about, between chimney-pots, over parapets, the hot leads stinging their fingers” (Lessing 187).
The woman’s indifference and rejection causes overtly aggressive reactions from the men because her behavior does not follow the norms imposed by men who view women as their private possessions, and as objects whose sole task in life is to please them. Similarly, the watercress girl who acts as an adult and recognizes her market value, does not fit the childhood norms of bourgeois society, which imply ability of children to enjoy themselves and be free from responsibilities. But in contrast to woman on a roof who challenges her male observers by her independence, the watercress girl does not threaten the male position of dominance. She just “puzzles, evokes pity, affection and repentance” in them (Steedman 410).
The behavior of the characters, males and females, in Houston’s and Lessing’s works echoed with theories of analytical studies of Gilligan and Steedman reveal a small portion of the endless mystery of the human attraction and behavior, its impact on individuals and society. Identities and choices of the two female characters described in two literary works do not imply that one of them is right and other one is wrong, but they point out the differences of individuals outlooks and desires that make up for the rich textured fabric of life. The familiarness of the construction workers’ behaviors brings into awareness the difficulties of the relationships between men and women. These disclosures of human properties of differences and difficulties depict the complexity of human relationships, in which harmony is still an unreachable goal.
Gilligan, Carol. “Woman’s Place in Man’s Life Cycle.” Cultural Conversations The Presence of the Past. Ed. Stephen Dilks, Regina Hanse and Matthew Parfitt. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s , 2001. 389-406
Houston, Pam. “How to Talk to a Hunter.” Making Literature Matter. Ed. John Schilb, John Clifford and Joyce Hollingsworth. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 708-712
Lessing, Doris. “Woman on a Roof.” Reading and Writing from Literature. Ed. John Sweibert. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 183-190
Steedman, Carolyn. “Histories.” Cultural Conversations The Presence of the Past. Ed. Stephen Dilks, Regina Hanse and Matthew Parfitt. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s , 2001. 407-419
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