“And She Aches Just Like a Woman”
Story of Evolution
“And She Aches Just Like a Woman”
The fight for social change does not occur for the iconoclasts only against the established norm but also with their own desires for security. While convincing others to the cause may seem impossible, the battle within is simply a lost cause. From birth we are constantly being initiated into our culture as we learn the social constructs, such as gender, which will serve as internal laws for the rest of our lives. Like the process of evolution, true social change occurs slowly and over the passage of many generations. For example each generation of women is fighting a gradually mutating battle for equality, causing each generation to struggle with a similarly gradual and mutating self-doubt. Howards End and On Beauty portray how this doubt can manifest in two different time periods for two well-respected, self-sufficient women. Margaret in Howards End feels that she is unable to make the decisions of a man and wants the comfort a husband can provide, despite the fact that she is financially independent. While the women in On Beauty have gained political equality, Kiki has come to doubt her own intellectual self-worth outside of the accomplishments of her husband. Both of these women display how difficult it is to maintain the resolve necessary for radical change.
When the novel opens Margaret is in a rare situation for a woman of her day and age. She is past the marriage age and still unwed, yet she is financially independent and caring for her younger siblings with relative ease. Despite the fact that her lease is about to expire, she has a large enough income to find herself a new residence. With a passion for knowledge, she spends her days reading and having political discussions with her friends. She is a true believer in womens’ rights and in assisting those less fortunate than herself. Yet all of that changes rapidly, for in her attempt to find a new house she longs for the resolute action a man can provide. Indecisive and overwhelmed, “she grew desperate; she resolved that she would go no where and be home to no one until she found a house, and broke that resolution in half an hour” (Forster pp 57). Unfortunately around the same time as her house hunt the widower Mr. Wilcox becomes interested in marrying Margaret. At a time when she needs answers, Mr. Wilcox is all too happy to give them. The pivotal point in their relationship lies in the first time she denied her own opinions and caved to his. In Simpson’s when Wilcox offers Margaret Gruyère or Stilton, Margaret choose Gruyère. Wilcox then states, “Better have Stilton,” and Margaret immediately gives in. It may seem inconsequential, but this is the first time in the entire novel that she gives into his domineering manner rather than assert herself. From there it is a downward spiral until she has devoted her entire life to Wilcox and becomes he complaisant housewife. This is in spite of his rude treatment of her pregnant sister and that he did not give her Howards End when the late Mrs. Wilcox willed it to her. Margaret sacrificed her significant independence and her intellectual curiosity for the security of not having to make decisions and be held accountable.
Kiki, in On Beauty, has already given up her independent life for her husband Howard when the novel begins. She no longer sees any of her old friends due to Howard’s jealousy, she quit her job to raise his kids, and worst of all she has been intellectually demoralized. Kiki is an example of the risk women like Margaret take when they give up any life beyond the one they share with their husbands. He had an affair with another professor, and when asked why he revoltingly explains, “If you’re asking me, obviously physicality is a factor. You have… Keeks, you’ve changed a lot” (Smith pp. 209). Furthermore Howard causes Kiki to loose any sense of intellectual self worth. When discussing the Violent Venus with Carlene Kipps she begins to regurgitate an argument Howard had once made rather than brave discussing her own opinion. When Howard corners her in the kitchen to discuss their marriage for the first time since his affair with Claire was fully revealed, Kiki is finally able to express her rage when she says, “I gave up my life for you. I don’t even know who I am anymore” (Smith pp 206). Before Howard Kiki was “active politically, and her beliefs were genuine and well expressed,” but she was unable to retain that in her new lifestyle. Ultimately she is able to regain some of her old self, but only by dramatically reducing Howard’s involvement in her life.
No one ever said change was easy, but the true difficulty doesn’t come from the opposition. To turn away from all of those values and social laws, which often we don’t even know are there, takes a great amount of emotional strength. When the option of a life of comfort becomes a realistic one, rather than dealing with the seemingly endless rejection of unpopular views, it is difficult to remember how important change can be. Furthermore being under the care of another individual means that you can never be held accountable for poor decisions. Sadly, Margaret and Kiki did not think about the sacrifices that they would also be forced to make by marrying their husbands. But every little bit that those women can fight their desire for the stability of conservatism is what really makes the difference. Each generation has been raised with the advances of their mothers as their norm, giving them a slightly higher position to move up from. Kiki’s daughter Zora, now struggling with her own self-image, is able to attend Wellington and assert herself intellectually in a way her mother couldn’t imagine doing. Such change must over occur over time, because it is so hard to keep going when giving up would be so easy. Considering the fact that the character of Kiki is based on Margaret, it is important to note the way Kiki’s life could seemingly be Margaret in a few years. I think Smith intended her novel not only to be a based off of Howards End, but also as a continuation of the story. Kiki’s reclaiming of her former identity, while not complete, brings hope to the oppressive conclusion to Howards End.
1. Forster, E. M. Howards End. 1910. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
2. Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.