The first book that Dark Puss and I tackled was Marge Piercy’s intense saga from the early 1970s, Small Changes, which we read simultaneously and exchanged comments upon while reading . It plunged us back into the USA on the brink of big social change. From the start this book signals its determined political intent, and musters a fine head of rage towards the spectacle of a culture – a mere 40 years ago – that treated women as second-class citizens, locked in frustrating and thankless roles. The first part focuses on Beth, and opens as she is marrying her high school sweetheart, Jim. Beth is very young and very naïve; she’s getting married because it’s just what women do, and in no time at all, her husband has turned into her jailor. Beth doesn’t like to cook and clean, and she doesn’t want to fall pregnant, all of which infuriates the conservative Jim.
DP: OK, so the writing is much as I’d expect from early Piercy, not too special in itself but clearly she’s building a picture that’s quite plausible and given her early life probably based to some extent on reality. Domestic violence is cleverly handled, with the sexual exploitation of Beth by her husband so neatly expressed when he destroys her contraceptive pills.
L: I was also intrigued to note the way the womenfolk of her family turned against Beth for not behaving in orthodox fashion. The unsubtle message is that women are chattels, possessions in the exchange from father to husband, with no rights and certainly no minds of their own whose greatest use-value is to be found in providing sexual and domestic services. It’s very much a world in thrall to an ideology of domination and submission.
DP: The men are fairly un-redeemed but perhaps that isn’t so unrealistic and this book has a rather black & white approach to male-female relationships. I thought it was interesting that although women are now free to enter into sexual relationships outwith marriage, they are still regarded as subservient in other respects – why on earth they agree to this role of sex plus cooking/washing/mothering is not however clear to me.
I thought this was a good question, and it became one we thought about a lot while reading. Why did women accept a deal that in retrospect looks so poor? Though Piercy’s interest is in depicting a generation of women who can see all the disadvantages and exist on the cusp of rebellion.
In the second part we entered the world of Miriam, an intellectual young Jewish woman whose life improves immensely when she leaves home and undertakes a degree. Her interest is in maths and science and her work is extremely important to her. She falls in love with Phil, a would-be poet and drug addict, and then also with his friend and roommate, Jackson, a man with one bad marriage in his past already. Both men served in Vietnam. They exist in an urban counter-culture and attempt an awkward ménage à trois.
DP: The emotional blackmail used by Miriam’s family is depressingly plausible, though the relationship with her mother seemed a little too stereotypically ‘Jewish Mother’. I shared Miriam’s irritation that her brother is always praised (though he is less academically talented) and is excused the tedious housework just because he is a man. I thought Piercy’s depiction of Miriam’s father Lionel was more subtle; his detachment is a way of coping with a difficult relationship.
I’m interested in the way Miriam is beginning to move away from pure mathematics towards the relatively new area of computing and indeed computational bioscience. I smiled at the mention of the famous DEC 10 which is one of the seminal pieces of computer hardware ever made. It played (in reality) a significant role in places such as MIT so Piercy is spot on in her description here. (Super pictures of it can be seen at this web page ).
L: The thing about the mother-daughter relationships that interests me is the way mothering is akin to moulding; the mothers beg, bully and blackmail their daughters into being/acting the way the mothers feel they should. It’s no wonder that the women grow up co-dependent on others, as their autonomy in the most basic matter of identity has been, if not removed, then severely compromised.
This is the most interesting part of the book for me – the way that nurture is in league with culture. But the results end up in gender rancour. Miriam has never felt loved for who she is, only for behaving the way other people want her to. It’s something she’s fighting against, but the undertow of it is strong. In consequence, love – passionate love – is portrayed as being hard, almost unpleasant to live.
DP: What strikes me is how generically awful the men are! Never helping, always selfish, apparently only motivated by “chasing ass”. On the other side the women seem to be crazily tolerant of some bad/appalling behaviour and extremely nervous of expressing their own opinions – Miriam being the exception.
I believe Piercy is writing a fable here (like Aesop) but I’m sure that sadly much of what happens to Miriam in her attempts to find employment are completely realistic for the time and place. Quite a depressing picture is being painted of the lives of women in and around MIT and Harvard Universities! To be fair it doesn’t look like much fun or reward is being enjoyed by the men in this book either.
In the third section, Beth and Miriam try again to find new ways to live. Beth ran away from her marriage, was found by her husband and dragged back and then finally left him to live in a women’s commune and to find love with another woman (not without its own problems). Whereas Miriam gave up the rat race in the office and married her boss. A man who seemed nice on the surface but who, like Beth’s ex, ties Miriam up tightly in the role of wife and mother.
L: I’m feeling actually upset for the women, who are being cornered ever more viciously. I’d put it down to the way power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When men had all the authority in marriage and the work place, there was no way of keeping their own behaviour in check.
Any deviation from a role is seen, not simply as a mistake by a woman, but as a slur on their character, a stain, a loss of value. This is particularly true with motherhood, which I’ve always considered to be the part of female reality that feminism forgot.
What’s distressing is that, the first thing women do when free from men is to police one another. All of them are repelled by the different choices of the others and convinced that their own way is best. Not content to live and let live, however, they all try to bend the others to their will and promote their own choices as somehow ‘right’ or ‘better’. The endless power games are wearing.
DP: I’m amazed that Miriam should have, at the tender age of 26, given in to Neil’s demand for immediate pregnancy. She hasn’t even completed her thesis, something which is extremely challenging if you are working and nigh impossible if you have a small child. I’m found that sudden capitulation unconvincing in this story (but probably not so uncommon in reality in this era). Everyone seems to want to control everyone else and it is almost as if there is a “dressing up box” with cultural roles in it, rather than individual identities, that everyone has had to dip into. After you make your choice you are spoiling the game if you don’t like it or conform to it.
L: Heh, well, I found Miriam’s decision all too plausible. I was a month into my PhD when I gave birth to my son. How could I let this happen, you may ask? Easy! I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. It’s interesting; a couple of times you’ve said you found some pattern of behaviour hard to believe, whilst I have found it all too easy. Women’s lives, as far as I can see, and I do hope that’s changing now; I think my son’s generation really IS different – are very susceptible to being enclosed in ‘narratives’ that are very potent.
DP: I finished the book this morning and theme of “I go out to work, you don’t do anything” comes across very loudly from the dreadful Neil. How can he be so controlling? Miriam is trapped by having two very young children and has lost her confidence. I think that is very believable and Neil does nothing to help. He is clever in not becoming visibly angry when criticisng her as this undermines her ability to fight back. Of all the characters in the book I disliked him most even though there is nothing essentially bad about him.
None of our other books provoked quite this much comment! We both agreed by the end that it had been a hard read – long and involved and depressing in places. But the fact that Dark Puss found Piercy’s depiction of the fledgling computer business to be accurate made me feel it was stencilled from life in all ways, even if she had chosen some of the worst gender rancour to portray. We agreed it was a politically significant novel, and I’d love to see this sort of thing read by more young people. It’s worth remembering how things used to be, in the not-so-distant past.