Carolyn Heilbrun

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Carolyn Heilbrun


Carolyn Heilbrun. Writing a Woman’s Life. New York: Norton, 1988. 11-47

Referenced Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 18.


The book written by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, entitled “Writing a Woman’s Life”, brings to focus how, before the 1970’s, literature displayed artificial stories about women. Both autobiographies and biographies were somewhat deceptive because they failed to associate anger and authority with women. “What has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one’s life” (Heilbrun 13).

Women’s Literature and the Unattainable

Modern Women’s Autobiography

Heilbrun claims that 1973 is “the turning point for modern women’s autobiography” (Heilbrun 12) and could be demonstrated through two of May Sarton’s novels. May Sarton created “Plant Dreaming Deep” several years before and later altered it into “Journal of Solitude”, where she was able to retell the same story-except this story did not obscure her pain and fury. Sarton realized that her original piece misrepresented her true unacceptable feelings, the main one being anger. If one is denied the ability to express anger, then one is also prohibited to obtain power and control.

Power and Control

By analyzing different institutions, Heilbrun defines power as the “ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter” (Heilbrun 18). Women who strive towards attaining power, in any area possible, are sentenced to being criticized; however this objective of being in control is never questionable among men. It’s difficult to imagine that women ask for power because we’ve grown to understand that they “could not possibly mean or want” (Heilbrun 18) it; therefore, Heilbrun proposes that women must publically demand power. As in The Awakening Mrs. Pontellier makes decisions on her own and begins to voice her opinions. These actions of hers are seen negatively because they are out of the norm, they're supposed to be expressed by a only a man. As Heilbrun infers, women who demand power are disputed because they should not want power because they don't know what to do with it; however, the society norm is that men know exactly what they're doing under power and control.

Unambiguous Women & The Male Vocabulary

History has repeatedly shown that women’s desires are perceived as minor requests than those of men. There exists a fantasy around courtship that women have to deceive a man to secure “a center for her life” (Heilbrun 21). Heilbrun concludes that “men are men only if women are unambiguously women” (Heilbrun 20). Through literature we assume there to be a universal tone; however, “there is only the white, middle-class, male tone” (Heilbrun 40), narrative, and language. Stories of women are assumed to be created from what is only available: the male language. The male language has been successful because of women's silence. When women do write, they exemplify the literature and dialogue that men have created. The male-dominated culture has made it more easier for men to develop stories than women.

Heilbrun and The Awakening

Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s “Writing a Women’s Life” allows one to understand the writing format in The Awakening as well as how Mrs. Pontellier, the main character, feels. The Awakening has been written in only what has been accessible, the male language. Mrs. Pontellier’s neglect towards performing her only duty, running a domestic household, is unheard of and develops anger inside of her because she cannot break away. Others are also bothered as well because she’s challenging norms that they have had to abide to, she's deviating from and making her own rules. Mrs. Pontellier struggles to obtain control of her life and as she breaks away, she exhibits that her husband is no longer the main focus, or “center”, in her life. She makes up her own mind and pursues what makes her happy, Robert. Mrs. Pontellier publically expresses the power and control she has over herself as she sends her kids away, decides to move, and attempts at making a new beginning with Robert.


See Also:

  • Nancy Armstrong on domestic novels as articulated to a history of sexuality.
  • Trinh Minh-ha for women's writing within postcolonial contexts.