A Bird In The House Essay, Research Paper
The Position of women in the 1930’s and 1940’s is an important part of understanding the story, “A bird in the house”. Women made great strides in the twenties, gaining the right to vote, Among other statutory rights. This seemed to be the beginning of the idea that women were indeed afforded the same rights and priveliges as men1. Perhaps planting the first seeds of a liberated consciousness. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to complete the atlantic crossing single-handed. Feats of this magnitude opened the door for many other women to follow their dreams. The women in this novel represent three generations of Canadian women, In the 1930’s to 40’s. Their views all differ enormously. I will focus mainly on examples of their position, using the short story “A bird in the house” to demonstrate these differences.
There are four women featured prominently in this particular story: Grandmother MacLeod, a staid woman, who is presented as being very traditional and “proper”. Noreen, a young woman who at first seems very provincial and perhaps a little narrow minded. Beth, the mother of Vanessa, is a woman who seems on the cusp of self discovery, but who seems somehow muted due to the expectations of others. And finally, perhaps most importantly, we come to Vanessa. Vanessa has the attributes of both her mother and grandmother. She is very inquisitive for her age and seems to inwardly question everything while outwardly, she presents a very independent demeanor. The story starts with Vanessa deciding to forgo the annual remembrance day parade. She harbors a contempt for it, which seems to be a result of part childhood tendency and part avoidance of a world of strange men she wishes not to be a part of. Her grandmother discovers her playing frivolously in the hallway, and reprimands her sternly. At this point, she realizes her grandmother is saddened by the memory of her son who was killed in the great war. This leads her to question whether avoiding the parade had been the respectful thing to do. After talking to her father she realizes there is something to be considered beyond the surface appearance of the occasion. The family has taken on Noreen, a young woman who has very fervent religious beliefs. She is there as a maid, or “hired girl”(Pg.97) while Vanessa’s mother Beth, returns to her husband’s practice to work as a nurse. Beth gently tries to explain to Noreen, that there are other things to consider at her age besides religion. This is an excellent example of the empowerment that women of the time were beginning to feel.
There is discussion at the breakfast table one morning about the possibility of Noreen getting married. This is a sentiment supplied by Vanessa’s father. He believes this would disrupt the household. The argument is pursued briefly, with the husband finding himself quickly quieted, thus displaying one of Laurence’s central underlying themes of the novel. The above being, that interwoven into the family unit is the idea that women are holding people together and controlling the course of decision. There seems to be a passive-agressive quality to these women, who essentially manipulate things in a very effective fashion, in order to achieve a harmonious balance.
Young Vanessa seems apprehensive around Noreen, who is something of an enigma to the impressionable girl. She seems not to understand many of Noreen’s actions, and views her with suspicion. She sees Noreen as a girl immersed in a world of spirits and nightmarish visions. This affects Vanessa, forcing her to realize that there are different types of women, and that if one looks closely, appearances can be deceptive. Now, looking to the grandmother as the leader of the matriarchy, it is evident that she is very simple in her perspective. She is the product of a generation of women who had their place in society defined absolutely. Beth, the next descendant, has more flexibility of thought, but her actions are limited due to circumstance. She is forced to make changes in lifestyle, due not to a sense of empowerment, but out of economic necessity. Her daughter Vanessa views her grandmother with a great deal of resentment. She also sees her mother’s sacrifices as trivial, taking away from her experience as a daughter. Vanessa seems on some level to realize she is afforded more freedom than either of these women. There is an understanding that she has options available to her that neither her mother nor grandmother were afforded. Vanessa is on the cusp of womanhood and it would seem she is also born on the line separating two distinctly different generations.
Towards the end of the story, Vanessa’s father becomes ill and shortly thereafter he dies. This sets off a chain of events which changes the dynamic of the household drastically. The women are now left in a family devoid of men. Grandmother MacLeod’s sentiment that a family without men is not a family at all, (pg. 111) is a very important statement for Laurence. The women are shown to have a strong dependence upon the men of the family. The house is sold, and Grandmother MacLeod moves away to live with another female relative. Vanessa comes one step closer to maturity, realizing that her father did indeed play an important part in her life. Noreen moves back to her farm to continue a life left behind.
Although I chose to examine just one story, I believe Laurence was trying to subtly demonstrate the position of women during this particular period in history. She draws a picture of varying levels of personal independence .On one hand, the women seem to be fiercely independent, in their own individual ways. On the other however, they are dependent on men to provide support and perhaps even guidance.
Overall, Laurence demonstrates that although the women were perhaps putting their faith in the societal norm, this period marked a great advancement in the liberation and conciousness of Canadian women.