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Madame Ovary: In Due Time to Save the Femynyst Period?
by Norma Perfect

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 210).

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.

Works Cited

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, 1983.

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.