Madame Ovary: In Due Time to Save the Femynyst
When Jyllene Sexsue's Madame Ovary: the Ransomed Egg premiered
over 20 years ago, the world of serious womyn's literary theory was
ready for a change. French theorists of 20 years before had lit a fire
beneath the red brick kiln of the acade-man-y, and real progress was
being made. But the popular backlash, most notable in Rush Limbaugh's
diatribes against "femi-Nazis" got traction faster and where it counted:
the co-opted minds of the masses. Granted, the groundswell against the
"liberal elites" broadcast with vehement fury by the explosive politics
of Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich helped - never mind that they were
the elite they tried so hard to destroy.
The People, pre-opted by The Man (and by that I mean Ronald Reagan),
and threatened by real strong womyn (and by that I mean Hillary Rodham
and Anita Hill), rode the wave of hate all the way to Bush II, an almost
tired puppet of The Man, a swaggering caricature of a Texan, a "real
he-man" who never fought a war and never ran a successful business.
Instead of being a baseball player, he owned a baseball team, and to
American circa 2000, that was good enough.
From this mess, several "transitional" figures emerged, some more
sympathetic to real femynysm than others. Camille Paglia, it could
be argued, at least had her heart, what little of it there is, in the
right place. Rather than being victims, she preached that womyn should
be strong because we are strong.
A-womyn to that.
But her notorious notion that date rape was a myth smacked too many
already battered persons of her gender of blaming some actual victims.
Other figures (as opposed to "othered" figures), from this period that
gained power and glory were considerably less of like(able) mind. Karen
Hughes, Elizabeth Dole, Condoleeza Rice, Mary Matalin are all hopeless
shills for their oppressors. Their behavior, while seemingly independent,
is simply despicable betrayal.
In steps Madame Ovary, the very best "O" since The Story
of, a flight without fear to the heart of the M(o)ther. It came
at all the wrong times, as womyn are wont to do, but demonstrated without
doubt between the hysteria of tradition, and the wisteria of the garden
of origynation, there is still some mystery.
At its soul, Madame Ovary is the story of a garden - it is a mystery
set in a garden - , the garden of a traditional stay-at-home mom, seam-bursting
with domesticity. Inna Ovary's evolution from soccer vote in charge
of her own minivan to revolutionary in charge of her own destiny is
undercut and underlined only by the garden, her secret refuge, the secret
source of fecundity. She retreats here, away from Chuck, from the Burp,
from the Cuisinart,"to hoe earth and pull weeds, making free the soil
for fall's pansies, for the crocus of spring" (Sexsue 110). Chuck the
father and Burp the son, the toil is all in the tilling. Son care and
sun care become one care, the child-man, her husband, the other dependent.
It is only the garden that grows away, that "once planted, with a little
attention, will sprout peapods and sunflowers all on its own" (Sexsue
But it was her power too that grew, and as much as the Phyllis
Schlaflys of the world condemned Madame Ovary for its balatant depiction
of an otherwise model wife and mother giving up her child and marriage
to focus on her flowers, it was just there that her powers were seen.
There, the natural order was nurturance, and that implies an atavism
toward independence. The stark contrast of the house with its "regimented
lines of tiles, its garage tools like columns when she pulled the Voyager
in" was the man's world that required her constant vigilance: "They
will never be able to fold their own socks," nor cook their own pasta,
as it happens (Sexsue 244-5).
The pasta-cooking incident sends young Inna Ovary over the edge: "They
at least could have cleaned up after themselves! This most simple of
tasks became, for her, an exercise in chipping the now stone-like fusilli
away from the countertop with a putty knife" (Sexsue 250). Four pages
later, she's burying herself alive to feed her roses: "Inna could feel
the circulation begin to shut down in her left leg; her body began to
tingle. She thought differently now: the soil, seemingly so inert, objective,
now, it was clear, was alive, teeming with pains and joys, a constant
orgasm of life." And so what is writ large in the culture is writ small
in the backyard. Her function is to feed, and her last act
is one of defiance: to feed what is meaningful to her.
As an update of Madame Bovary, Sexsue's novel has been criticized
as being not at all accurate. Chuck is a real doctor, and a successful
one. There is no young male love interest. There is no "actual" adultery
(Sembole 45; Tenor 43; VaHickle 937). But that's the whole point: she
doesn't have to whore herself to be unvirtuous. Indeed, in Madame
Ovary, Inna in fact cheats on her garden with her spouse and family,
in essence cheating herself out of happiness. The result, of course,
is the same: the unvirtuous "woman" must die, and, as in the older novel,
by her own hand. Here it is literally by her own hand, in a
self-immersion back into the dirt-womb of M(o)ther Earth. Inna becomes
the ovum for her own garden, its own fertilizing principle. She defeats
both subjugation and differentiation by her literal rejoinder with Gaia.
Culture unearths us; femynysm re-earths.
It should be poignant, then, that the "post-feminist" political theory
seems to be all about extraction: extraction of ore and oil, extraction
of comfort and aid, extraction of trees from forests and cash from the
third world. It is a reverse insemination: the phalluses of drill-wells
become devices to suck dry essential lubricants of The Matrix;
the pipes shooting precious fluids around fuckover the landscape, binding
her into submission. Sub-mission is the correct spelling in this case:
the mission is sub-sustainable, sub-verting nature, a sub-human act.
It is the underground and underhanded oppression of the OverLords, the
dick-whipping corporate raper-barons gone mad. Hysteria = projection.
Femi-Nazi = the idle threat of the ghetto Jew.
The power of the M(o)ther is to produce by covering, to hold within
the earth-womb until due time. Extraction is the force of the factory.
The power of the M(o)ther is to implant, to ovate instead of inseminate,
to nurture through her cheer. In nature, it is our M(o)ther who controls
production. Re-production is industry; a myth of the patriarchy, a rendering
of the same - ever the same - in mass linearity. The M(o)ther produces,
new and unique. Madame Ovary, then, has two endings: the passive
reader will see Inna's death as a suicide - perhaps, if astute, as a
rejection of her patriarchal life. But the deep reader will see her
death as an implantation, as life become new life, protest as production.
If Madame Ovary made any kind of impact, America did not
feel it. Murphy Brown and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
notwithstanding, the femynyst left reteated soon after, becoming the
toy of academics and the occasional young, budding Judy Chicago. The
squeals of Limbaugh et al. proved unfounded, but were still whined like
an air-raid over talk radio. Madame Ovary was buried deep in
the literary soil to be a target of the patriarchal pesticide of politics
in the '80s and '90s. We can only hope the social (o)pressures of those
days will one day render this critical carbon into the diamond I know
it to be. And we all know whose best friends those are.
Sembole, Ty Rod. "Madame Ovary and the Saintly Left: How Virtue Devealed
Itself in FemLit." Philological Discursions 14 (1983) 43-51.
Sexsue, Jyllene. Madame Ovary: The Ransomed Egg. Boston: Hardcourt,
Tenor, Bessie. "What Has Become of My Emma? Revisioning Bovary in the
Era of Big Hair." Diatribe 30.3 (1984) 23-47.
VaHickle, Sonny Ra. "Egg on Their Feces: Social Noise and the Coming
Post-Feminism." Ritual Review 17 (1986) 930-45.