Amplifying Women's Voices Through Fictional Writing
By Besmah Al-Ashari, Virginia State University
Dating back as far as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852 to confront the inhumane practice of slavery, its incontrovertible to state that fictional writing has been used as a tool to address social issues for centuries. Additionally, it’s evident through feminist criticism theory in Peter Barry’s, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, that the fight for women’s equality is no exception.
While some may argue that the use of writing to bring light to women’s struggles neglects the natural tendencies of men and their inability to fully empathize, I believe that Anthony Doerr’s, “The Hunter’s Wife,” and Danielle Evans’, “Why Don’t Women Say,” perfectly exemplify literature’s ability to discreetly challenge the representation of women as “‘Other’,” while also allowing readers to revalue women’s experiences (Barry 116). Moreover, such stories demonstrate how the use of fictional writing is beneficial in showcasing the discrepancies in the way society values women.
Upon first glance, “The Hunter’s Wife” may seem like an almost fairytale-like story about a man and a woman that fall out of love due to their inability to settle on a mutual agreement for their desires. However, with deeper analyzation, I’ve come to discover that the lack of respect and importance of women’s ambitions and/or careers is what's truly present here. From the very beginning, the hunter instantly falls in love with Mary, his soon-to-be wife, in the midst of her being sawed in half, as she is an assistant to a magician. He can’t help but attend every performance after that first glance, and spends a good portion of the story merely pleading to take her out to dinner. Very early on in their non-official relationship, the hunter’s wife expresses that she is destined for so much more than her current job as an assistant. In fact, she explains, “...I dream bigger dreams, you know,” followed by, “I have magic inside of me. I'm not going to get sawed in half by Tony Vespucci all my life” (Doerr). It appears that the hunter agrees with her, as he explains that he has no doubt, and his wife is pleased with his response. All the above dialogue took place during one initial dinner they had together. For a whopping two years after said discussion, the hunter meets Mary each time her magic show reaches back to Montana. The conflict arises later in the story as we discover the hunter’s wife has magical powers that grant her a connection to the inner lives of people and animals. She eventually becomes extremely busy and unavailable to her husband as people all over town ask for her services. This angers the hunter, and not only does he not believe her, but he accuses her of conning people for money. The hunter’s opposition to his wife working is what ultimately ends their relationship. Eventually, the hunter does believe his wife twenty years later.
Although keeping a summary of the story to a minimum is important, all the details mentioned above relate back to some form of feminist criticism theory. Barry states that feminist critics “Challenge representations of women as ‘Other’, as ‘lack’, as part of ‘nature’,” and this couldn’t be more apparent in “The Hunter’s Wife” (115). Women have always been seen as ‘other’, meaning they’re merely backup dancers, while men are the main stars. Women’s careers have never been taken as seriously as their male coworkers, as seen in “The Hunter’s Wife.” In this case, the hunter has no issue spending two years traveling back and forth to Mary’s magic show while he watches her assist the main magician. Moreover, she was the ‘other’ in this situation because she was merely an assistant. Even if it meant traveling back and forth for an excruciatingly long time, the hunter was more than willing to do so because she wasn’t the main act. However, once his wife discovers a gift of her own, where she’s able to work independently, it infuriates him. In order to please her husband, the wife tries to use other means of satisfying her hunger to discover more by reading books. Of course, this didn’t last long because “Soon her sudden and ravenous appetite for books could not be met by the Great Falls Public Library” (Doerr). Furthermore, Mary began reading books in different languages, and understandingly, it simply wasn’t enough. Consequently, the wife goes on to perform her magic services for others, and once again, this boils the hunter’s blood. His disdain for her career and independence pushes him to the point where he can’t continue their relationship. The wife so desperately wants her husband to understand, pleading, “...I'm doing what I love. Can't you see how good I feel afterward?" (Doerr). Unsurprisingly, the hunter barks back with, “You take advantage of them…” (Doerr). This speaks volumes as it represents the lack of respect he has for her and her aspirations.
Other forms of society’s skewed image of women are more discreetly placed in this story. Correspondingly, as I read “The Hunter’s Wife,” I wondered: Why weren’t the two main characters referred to by their actual names? I didn’t initially have this question; however, after considering feminist criticism theory, I’ve realized this is a stealthy way of representing Barry’s previous point: challenging the notion that women are represented as “part of ‘nature” (Barry 115-16). Furthermore, the hunter is a man that hunts and dreams about hunting every night. I interpret the repetition of the hunter’s dreams, and Doerr referring to him as “the hunter” the entire story, as a representation of the long-lived idea that men are the hunter-gatherers of every relationship. Men are the providers and if they need to spend lengths of time to hunt, it is more than acceptable. Conversely, women are “part of ‘nature’” (Barry 115-16). When Barry explains such an idea, I presume that he is referring to the undeniable fact that for centuries, our sole purpose in the eyes of men around us is to merely reproduce and provide for men. Women must obey men and tend to their needs, as they push aside their own desires that are seen as inferior. Doerr further exemplifies this by referring to Mary as “the hunter’s wife.” It’s almost as if she is meant to have no real identity outside of being the hunter’s wife, and the hunter makes this no secret with his disapproval of her magical powers. She is merely “‘Other’” (Barry 115). This is prevalent in many cultures today, including my own. Identically, in much of Arab culture women aren’t allowed to be referred to by their names in the presence of men. Moreover, my mother is referred to as my father’s wife, and I am referred to as his daughter. Our sense of identity is at risk of being wiped away. Such social issues are widespread across the globe, which is why it is imperative to use literature as a means of tackling these issues, just as Doerr does in “The Hunter’s Wife.”
While “The Hunter’s Wife” is a goldmine for hidden and indirect ties to feminism, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” by Danielle Evans, is much more direct. The fictional story is about a male artist, and throughout the heinous tale, he grants long overdue apologies to numerous women for the way he mistreated them in the past. Towards the end, he holds an art exhibit to make amends and apologize, only this ends up backfiring. Furthermore, he made a deal with the apology recipients: if his apology was made worse with the exhibit, they would get to push him into the volcano he made. To his surprise, one of the women he harmed in the past takes said opportunity and pushes him into the hot liquid. Although the plot seems rather simplistic, the story is filled with different messages about women and their experiences, and the acts men can so easily get away with due to societal standards and the patriarchy.
Even though this may seem like a revenge narrative, it's far from it. Moreover, this piece of writing was created to shed light on the different experiences of various women. The names of these women aren’t revealed, as they seem to be referred to by the viewpoint of the artist and his relation to them. Evans goes into detail when describing the endurance of abuse for each woman that encountered this artist, but not before revealing how insincere the artist, as well as many men’s apologies, were in the past. Evans expresses that the artist was now “... sorry without caveat or redirection. He was sorry without taking the opportunity to tell a long story about what had brought him to this point, thus making the person he was supposed to be comforting comfort him instead” (Evans). This is paramount because it reveals that in the past, he would apologize by placing blame on the women, and still managed to get away with his inexcusable behavior. He was capable of getting away with his excuse for apologies by gaslighting nearly all of the women mentioned in the story, meaning he made them question their sense of reality through manipulation. The artist did this to the Former Personal Assistant when he cost her job and lied to her about it. Notably, he made a rude remark about the Model’s face being asymmetrical when it was symmetrical. He convinced the Longsuffering Ex-Wife that she was the problem when it was undoubtedly him. Similarly, he told his daughter that she had no right to be upset about the fact that he had sexual intercourse with her friend and manipulated her into believing he did nothing wrong. Lastly, he left a bruise on the On Again Off Again Ex of His Wayward Youth’s arm but told her she was seeing things when she pointed it out to him. There are merely some of the ways he gaslighted these women, making them question their experiences. The artist was so successful in traumatizing his former partners because in society men have always been deemed as logical, while women are always seen as crazy, emotional, jealous, and dramatic. These unfavorable conceptions of women display “the extent of the patriarchy” and the power relations at hand because he was so easily able to manipulate them (Barry 116). Yet through this piece of fictional literature, the women express how they weren’t crazy at all. Furthermore, this story is used to “Revalue women’s experiences,” because the victims are finally able to speak the truth about what they endured (Barry 115). This theme is apparent because not only were the apologies a window into the women’s true experiences, but the different ways they reacted to them were telling as well. Despite how overdue the apologies were, they still heavily affected the women, which shows that although their encounters with the artist eventually came to an end, the trauma never did. The Former Personal Assistant’s reaction is a perfect example of how important it is to revalue women’s experiences, she wept and wept as “she turned her phone off to resist the temptation to write to everyone who’d ever met her account of him with even a flicker of doubt and say ‘Did you see it? Did you see I was telling the truth?’” (Evans).
As previously mentioned, the artist ends up being pushed into the volcano, and all of the apology recipients reacted to his death differently. To enumerate, “The Longsuffering Ex-Wife thought he’d planned it this way, to go out on his own terms and still make it someone else’s fault,” and, “The On Again Off Again Ex of His Wayward Youth thought it was carelessness” (Daniels). However, the Model/Actress was the only one that was correct: “the volcano was dangerous because he’d never actually expected to be in it,” and “He didn’t think there was anything he couldn’t talk his way out of or anyone he couldn’t charm if he put his mind to it” (Evans). These two lines speak volumes, as it reveals how this one man was capable of causing so much damage to numerous women, because it was socially acceptable for him as a man. He never thought he would be held accountable for his actions, which only further clarifies how insincere his sincerest attempts at an apology were. The artist’s superficiality shouldn’t surprise the reader, after all, “There were more critics and arts and culture writers in the gallery than apology recipients” (Evans). It all seemed performative, and even after the many years the artist had to accept accountability, he didn’t expect to actually have to do so, because he depended on his privileges as a man. Utilizing Evans’ tale of the artist’s ongoing abuse towards women, those that aren’t capable of fully empathizing with such encounters are granted a lens to see through, and that lens allows the reader to recognize said struggles directly through women’s experiences.
Although some may claim that feminist criticism theory is circled directly around making men out to be horrible creatures, this simply isn’t valid because in the 1980’s the focus switched “from attacking male versions of the world to exploring the nature of the female world,” and “reconstructing the lost or suppressed records of female experience” (Barry 108). This is evident through the use of symbolism and detail in Doerr’s fictional story, as he is able to discreetly deliver a message that some may not have the privilege to voice. While Evans’, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” is far more straightforward, it is still apparent that the same principle previously stated applies here as well. The main focus is on revaluing the women and their experiences and how the ongoing effects of the patriarchy allowed one man to ruin so many lives, rather than a revenge story against the artist. As can be seen in these stories, it’s clear that as a society, we need to start shifting the focus of feminism in literature back onto the women, instead of trying to protect the feelings of men when their defensiveness truly just reveals their guilty conscience. Thus, the use of fictional writing should continue to be used as a tool to amplify women’s voices and their struggles.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Edited by
John McLeod, 4th ed., Manchester University Press, 2017, Z-Library, https://u1lib.org/book/5065462/873094. pp. 108-16.
Doerr, Anthony. “The Hunter's Wife.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 19 Dec. 2019,
Evans, Danielle. “Why Won't Women Just Say What They Want.” BARRELHOUSE,
BARRELHOUSE, 5 Oct. 2018, https://www.barrelhousemag.com/onlinelit/2018/9/27/why-
About the Author
Besmah Al-Ashari is a junior Englis major with a minor in Secondary Education at Virginia State University majoring in English with a minor in Secondary Education. Besmah has always had an affinity for writing and, after graduation, plans to become a middle or high school English teacher. As a Muslim American Yemeni, Besmah hopes to use writing to amplify diverse voices.