Classics Review: The Odd Women

The Odd Women by George Gissing
The Odd Women
by George Gissing

4 out of 5 stars

The Madden sisters are growing older, poor and unmarried, and ignored by society. Their younger sister, Monica, is still young and pretty, and they hope that she will marry well. She meets a Mr. Widdowson and contemplates marriage with him as a way to escape the horrors of being a spinster like her sisters.
Rhoda Nunn is another single lady who finds herself in the middle of a flirtation with an intellectual man, all while passionately avowing the most extreme feminist ideals and criticizing the institution of marriage.

I loved so many things about this book! The writing is incredible, and really pulls you into the story. The plot kept me wondering, and every emotional scene was glorious. It’s all about deception, ambition, betrayal, addiction, love, manipulation, jealousy, and pride. It’s not a happy book, but a very interesting and engaging read.
There are some really wonderful details in the writing that give the story so much depth. For instance, in the beginning the Madden sisters declare that they are vegetarian and eat very little, but it’s when their meager meal is described that the reader begins to truly see that the sisters are pretending to be vegetarian because they are so poor and unable to buy meat or rich foods. It’s the details that tug on your heart and bring that emotional element into every chapter.

The writing also does a wonderful job of hinting at a hidden meaning or a bigger purpose behind those details. A person stops at a pub and orders a drink, and it’s the way they furtively look around and nervously toss it back that alerts the reader that they might just be trying to hide their alcoholism. I love the way the writing shows these little glimpses to the reader and lets you draw your own conclusions, and then later in the story those hints are confirmed.

The characters are incredibly deep, and they feel very real. They are flawed, and they make terrible decisions, and their emotions are wild and unruly.

Every single character relationship is horribly manipulative. I started noticing this pattern in a few of the relationships where very manipulative characters are fighting for control of the relationship, but really ALL the relationships are manipulative on some level. This made me feel sorry for the author, who apparently never had a good relationship that wasn’t completely dysfunctional.

The characters are constantly analyzing every little word or gesture or glance or facial expression from other characters, in an attempt to manipulate the situation and gain mastery over the other person. It got on my nerves after a while. I appreciated all those little insights into the characters reactions to each situation, but why can’t any of the characters just let another character be? Just let them be free to express themselves without scrutinizing everything about them, so you can use it against them later.

The dynamic of each character relationship is determined by two things: mental fitness and emotional understanding. The relationship between Monica and her spinster sisters is strained because they don’t understand her emotionally or mentally. The relationship between Rhoda and her gentleman, Everard, is based on their mutual mental fitness, and they have a lot of fun sparring with intellectual swords. Monica is completely misunderstood by her beau, Widdowson, and they are utterly unfit as companions, both emotionally and mentally. The only two people in a major relationship in the entire book who ARE suited to each other in both respects are Rhoda and her friend Mary. Their friendship goes through some storms but ultimately it is their mutual respect and understanding that keeps their friendship strong and resilient. I loved their dynamic!

Every main character is selfish and proud, so no wonder they are all miserable for most of the book. But many of them are also loyal, courageous, empathetic, and good-hearted. It is mostly their own insecurities and anxieties that make them so fiercely proud, and it is their losses and struggles that make them grasp selfishly for what they want out of life. It makes them feel like real people, so while I didn’t exactly like any of the characters, I found them supremely interesting and compelling.

Rhoda and Everard both think that love is a game, a contest to be won, and they are always trying to subdue and conquer, even to the point of hoping that the other person is suffering emotional distress so that they can gain the upper hand. They hold up these impossible standards to each other, and basically dare the other person to live on that pedestal.

Monica and Widdowson are the perfect counterpoint to Rhoda and Everard. Widdowson sees women as children who need a teacher to guide them and rule over them. He thinks that he can solve Monica’s unrest by giving her needlework to do. He is incredibly insecure and afraid of appearing incompetent or weak, so he MUST imagine that she is incompetent and weak to make himself feel better about his own flaws.
Monica also has expectations from Widdowson that he must fulfill her male ideal of a strong and courageous man who knows what to do. She sets him up to be embarrassed and feel helpless when he can’t perform perfectly in every situation that arises.

Ultimately, this is a book about contradictory ideals: the ideal woman of sweetness and femininity, the ideal man of courage and decision, the ideal behavior that is expected of each person, the ideal romance, the ideal marriage, an ideal society where women and men have equal rights. Every character has their idea of how the world “should be”, and then they are disillusioned with others, and disappointed in themselves when no one can live up to those expectations. They are devastated to realize that they are only human after all, and must muddle through with the rest of the masses.

The only ideal that really holds up by the end of the book is Rhoda’s ideal of women’s equal rights, although she has lightened her heavy militant ideas through her character arc. I really loved her character development! For me, that makes her the main focus of the entire book. She has suffered emotionally and has been forced to reexamine her concepts of what freedom for women truly means. Through that suffering her harsh personality is softened. In the beginning she shuts out any compassion for weaker women who have “failed” her ideal of the emancipated female, but by the end of the book, she shows compassion for others. She still believes in that emancipated feminist ideal, but it is tempered with pity and a greater understanding of a woman’s scope in life.

Rhoda’s noble ideals give her a contented (if not exactly happy) ending, and she is full of energy and hope. She has a virtuous purpose to give her life meaning. I loved so many things about her character and her story!

One of my favorite scenes in the entire book was when two of the characters go hiking on Sca Fell in the Lake District, and the beauties of the mountains and lakes are described in such powerful but concise language that I had to look up photos of the area. It added so much depth to the story to see the actual location where they were at, and that whole scene felt like a dream. The scene is intended to feel like a dream when the characters are away from their normal lives in London, and they are free to be themselves without the normal constraints of society. The whole plot line was masterly orchestrated with this scene as the romantic dream, and then a rude awakening when their ordinary responsibilities and anxieties creep back in. Brilliant writing!

My only complaint is that I would have liked to see more of actual loving marriages and healthy family relationships. The only happy marriage in the entire book is between two minor side characters, the Micklethwaites. It is barely touched on, only gets two or three short scenes, and is sort of dismissed as a fluke. So many of the personal relationships on every level of family, romance, friendship, and acquaintances are entirely dysfunctional, abusive, and manipulative. If only there had been a little more attention to good and healthy relationships, I would have given this book 5 stars. However, after reading a little bit about the author, it looks like he never experienced a happy or healthy relationship in real life, so no wonder he found himself unable to write about them.

I was also disappointed in how Christianity is completely dismissed in this book. It’s not even considered as a possible avenue for happiness or personal fulfillment. Many Victorians twisted Christianity into something that would oppress people with rules, instead of the true Christianity of the Bible which sets people free to be whoever God created them to be. It was annoying to see how religion was sneered at in this book, but it wasn’t often enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book.

There are so many aspects of this book to consider, so many facets to the characters, and elements in the plot. I could write much more, but these are my main thoughts.

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