The short story “The Woman Destroyed” has quite the breathtaking title, don’t you think?
I mean, destroyed is a hardcore word. This is not, apparently, a story about a woman annoyed, a woman thwarted, a woman in a bit of pain, or a woman having a bad day. This is about a woman destroyed.
The most relevant synonyms for destroyed listed at thesaurus.com are as follows: “broken,” “demolished,” “devastated,” “lost,” “ravaged,” “ruined,” “shattered,” “smashed,” and “wrecked.”
These are words that imply an action that one party performs upon another. This is not a woman inflicting a torture upon herself. No: this is a woman experiencing a torture that someone else has inflicted upon her.
And how are these synonyms most often used in conventional language? We use these words to describe someone totaling a car; doing demo on a house; hurting someone else emotionally or physically; or contriving, and succeeding, to steal someone else’s money, reputation, or self-worth.
Now, who, do you think, is doing the destroying here?
(Hint: the author of this short story, which is included in a book also titled The Woman Destroyed, is Simone de Beauvoir, the mid-twentieth-century feminist icon.)
Do you even need three guesses? One should suffice!
Okay, do you have your guess ready? Let’s get back to this in a moment.
Upon seeing the title The Woman Destroyed in a D.C. bookstore, I thought: #MeToo notwithstanding, this title is a bit hyperbolic, no? Is this going to be a story about a woman systematically deprived of life and liberty—I’m thinking of parallels to Orwell’s 1984, Kafka’s The Trial, or Anne Frank’s diary and life?
Curious to find out, I bought the book (unfortunately!!). And I discovered that the story is told through a woman’s diary entries. Here’s part of one entry:
“I used to see myself so clearly through his eyes. Indeed I saw myself only through his eyes—too flattering a picture, perhaps, but one in which I recognized myself.”
And here’s another:
“In fact I am defenseless because I have never supposed I had any rights. I expect a lot of the people I love—too much, perhaps. I expect a lot, and I even ask for it. But I do not know how to insist.”
Why does this woman have a history of seeing herself only through a man’s eyes?
Why doesn’t this woman know how to insist upon her right to be treated with respect?
Was your guess, by chance, that a man was doing the deed of destroying this woman? If so—ding-ding, you are right! . . . sort of. Because de Beauvoir’s point is not that one particular woman is being destroyed by one particular man. Indeed, she is not being destroyed by him. This is not a story about a woman locked in a jail cell, forced into a camp, or tortured and murdered. This is a story about a woman being physically and emotionally destroyed by a man because she doesn’t know how not to be and society provides too few outlets for her not to be.
And so, no, the title is not hyperbolic.* This woman is being deprived of life and liberty. If only she had more resources—inner and outer—at her disposal! And make no mistake: women and society have made great strides since this story was published in 1967, but structural problems still exist in the U.S. today.
Alas, I myself have undergone a decades-long, and still ongoing, journey toward learning how to not let myself get destroyed amidst the binding and contradictory expectations put upon me as a woman. I do, unfortunately, identify with the protagonist of this story in many ways.
And it’s reading and writing, in very large part, that have lifted me up in my endeavor to see myself principally through my own eyes, as opposed to principally the eyes of a man or of society. Surely de Beauvoir’s tale is meant to show us the way through a negative example. In laying bare this woman’s destructive thoughts, we can see reflections of our own: and hopefully work toward something better, in ourselves and in others.
Isn’t this one reason, after all, for keeping a diary? I want to tell the woman with the diary to reread her words, note their destructive qualities, and seek change! Is she irredeemably destroyed? Are the odds stacked too highly against her? She does, indeed, in fleeting moments, reread herself and note her complicity in her own destruction . . . but will she seek change?
Will you seek change?
Have a peaceful and changeful and self-loving holiday week!
*Well, perhaps the title is hyperbolic, after all. When I asked Google to translate the original French title La Femme rompue into English, it returned "the broken woman." In English anyway, broken implies fixable, whereas destroyed implies a hopeless case. French speakers, please weigh in here! I will say, however, having read the short story, that broken seems to me more linguistically accurate in describing the woman in question.