Phyllis (Kamiel) Lehman Midterm Essay
February 7, 2013 Eng. 7501
Dual Perspective Analysis:
“Wedding Day” by Roberta Silman
The plot begins with a young woman contemplating a spider web on the front porch of her home. The house behind her is all abuzz with preparations for her wedding which is to take place there that very day. There is an underlying disappointment by her and her fiancé’s choice of venue, but the family is committed to make it a joyous event even if it is not a full blown traditional Jewish wedding taking place in a synagogue and catering hall. It is told from a first person narrative and we are introduced to her parents, sisters, grandparents, fiancé, in-laws, rabbi and family friends all from her perspective as she prepares, dresses and the guests arrive. The plot ends with the modest wedding feast over, the heroine bidding farewell to her parents and the young couple on their way to their new life.
“Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away… Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and history – by her own movement” (Cixous, 242). When Helene Cixous wrote those words in 1975, Roberta Silman had already put her “toe in the water” toward that end when she wrote “Wedding Day” in 1963. Feminists believe that women have been pitifully overlooked, even repressed, in the worlds of culture, literature and elsewhere. The time is more than ripe for their particular stories and perspectives to be heard and lauded. “Wedding Day” has an ambiguously independent heroine who takes a tentative step toward having the woman’s untraditional voice heard.
Feminists would analyze this text with an eye toward answering the following questions. Who in the text is actually speaking and whose perspective is being given voice? What images of women are being promulgated and are these images accurate? Is the text speaking for or against women? Is it telling a unique women’s story?
“I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man” (Cixous, 244). Given that this text is written solely in the female heroine’s voice, it obviously fulfills Cixous’ requirements. Through the female author’s and the bride’s eyes, we understand their particularly female thoughts, feelings and opinions during the course of this day. In addition, all the primary interactions are with women, her mother, sisters and cleaning lady, thus adding richness to the female perspective.
Silman’s personal history growing up in a town on Long Island closely meshes with the setting in the book bringing to life Toril Moi’s assertion that part of the “basic feminist contention” is “that we all speak from a specific position shaped by cultural, social, political and personal factors” (265). As such, Silman is uniquely qualified to speak in this specific female character’s voice regarding this slice of life which is rife with material for the most avid of Elaine Showalter’s “gynocritics” (1226).
The choice of this particular milestone to tell this woman’s story has resonance. It fulfills Moi’s condition that feminist literary studies should be “concerned with nurturing personal growth and raising the individual consciousness by linking literature to life, particularly to the lived experience of the reader” (265). Marriage has always been viewed as one of the most significant milestones for a woman. It has also been a flashpoint for feminists as symbolizing an accession to the wishes and constructs of the male. By using the wedding day as a platform for telling her story, Silman immediately captures the attention of women everywhere.
The very title, “Wedding Day”, thrusts the reader into the main action. With this major life event looming, the commonplace tasks detailed on the first page of the bride polishing her nails, analyzing a spider web, and eating lunch seem to emphasize her wish for the day to be as free of frills as possible. She herself seems to notice this dissonance when she calmly says, “This is no day to admire a spider’s handiwork” (197). Still, she is intent on proceeding as if nothing dramatic is happening. “I never realized there would be such a fuss” she tells her sister (199). The bride tries to be as nonchalant as possible regarding her actual wedding. When speaking of her future sister-in-law in advanced stages of pregnancy she says, “We are cruel to make her come out, even for a wedding – especially for a wedding” (202). Our bride’s objection to the “fuss” of a wedding might lead us to believe her to be a true feminist.
As hinted at earlier, “Wedding Day” is a story of a woman trying to climb out of the web in which she finds herself. The very first line is, “The spider drops, then climbs again, high into the corner, then drops once more” (196). Like the spider, our heroine is trying her best to get out of that web, even with the same fits and starts. She is trying to break free of what is the norm and expected of her and carve out a niche all her own represented here by a home wedding. She tells us of Jean, her cleaning lady, who “is disappointed that we aren’t having a big wedding” (197) as well as of her mother about whom she says, “I watch the deepening frown between her eyes” (197). All this would point to a bride true to the independent feminist ideal. Indeed, she is a new college graduate, has travelled to Europe and has decided to do what none of her other friends have done, have a small and modest wedding in her home. However, upon further analysis, the true feminist or “gynocritic” would not be convinced.
To hear her tell it, the bride seems intent on making this unconventional choice of a house wedding a reality. Although she expresses some guilt when she says, “It wasn’t fair to my parents to have a small wedding” (199); she doesn’t change the basic plan. She recalls the morning that she and her fiancé, Phil, “broke” the news to her parents. Her parents had suggested a small wedding in a chapel as an alternative. “Phil shook his head firmly; the immediate family at home was all he wanted” (199). This is precisely where we can pinpoint to the “critical” clue. Was it really her desire or was it Phil’s to break with tradition? She even acknowledges that she was “busy agreeing with Phil” (199). Was she a feminist or just another male dominated semi-acquiescent woman?
If it is her decision, a woman standing up for what she wants against strong opposing forces, this would be a pro-feminist story advancing the cause. As Cixous says, “Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures” (245). Silman’s highlighting this “subversive” move by our bride could be helping the women’s movement toward allowing women to do as they wish. On the other hand, if she is merely going along with what her fiancé has chosen, she is perpetuating a life pattern of subservience, first to her parents and now to her future husband, which would be totally counter to the valiant feminist trail blazers before her.
The bride says early in the story, “I’m like a slow motion movie” (197). She confesses to be watching the whole process from afar when she grants, “I’m in exile” (197). She seems to be gliding through this day not quite in charge of herself and her feelings. She has ceded all decisions except for the venue to her parents and relatives. They set up the traditional Jewish wedding canopy in the living room, call a kosher caterer to satisfy her orthodox grandparents, hire a photographer and busy themselves with details such as finding appropriate music. She goes from room to room watching other women busy with the preparations; her mother is directing the construction of the chuppah (wedding canopy) and her grandmother is checking on the kosher standards of the caterer. Her sister tells her as she is rushing about, “A wedding’s a wedding” (199). All this tells us that she is not exactly the strong revolutionary figure we had first envisioned.
Upon a closer reading of the text, it appears that our bride’s feelings are altogether ambiguous. She cannot even decide how she feels. When she starts dressing for the big event she describes, “After the hot water I turn on the cold. It clears my head a little, and when I step out of the shower I feel better” (202). Better than what we do not know. She graduates from this non-descript feeling to something much stronger. “Suddenly I’m angry that they are all laughing and eating and drinking and I’m up here” (204). But even here it is not feminist in nature. She is conflicted about wanting to be part of all the “fuss” or hold to her principles and keep it all in perspective. A pro-feminist would likely contend that she is being pushed around. Although she started wanting to make an independent statement, albeit in agreement with her fiancé, she has “copped out” and let the rest of the family take over.
Perhaps most telling is that while all the other more conventional women in the story are named, the heroine is not. She is similar to the no-named heroine that we encounter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, both left similarly nameless to emphasize their feelings of being overwhelmed and not in control. She admits to her lack of control when speaking about complying with the wishes of her strictly religious grandparents, “I am the eldest grandchild in America, so this time we are letting them have their way” (200).
To go one step further, a feminist might say that the images of women presented here actually perpetuate stereotypical images further exacerbating the problem Moi spoke about “that to study ‘images of women’ in fiction is equivalent to studying false images of women in fiction written by both sexes” (266). The bride is constantly doing or being told to do “womanly” things. Her mother tells her, “I wish you would go to the beauty parlor” (197) or “Please go up and take a nap” (199). At this, Moi would probably call Silman a sell out to the feminist cause as well.
For the feminist, marriage is more about the linking of two fully independent people who continue to live their lives on their own terms. This is in contrast to the traditional view of marriage as a safe haven for women conferring economic and social benefits in exchange for subservience to the dominant male. So, is our bride a true feminist or not? As she descends the stairs toward the ceremony, she declares to herself, “Then I am alone” (205). Is that the truth? Has she achieved the independence she seems to crave? Or, is it just a brief interlude from being dominated by her father and his world to his replacement, her husband? Finally, after the wedding feast, she notices that “the light shines through the spider’s web; it is intact though the spider is gone” (207). But we are left wondering if she is truly free or has only climbed into another web. The story concludes with “as I take Phil’s hand I see that his eyes are clear and filled with light” (207). Has the couple created their own unique light based on progressive feminist principles or has she just ceded to his vision? Silman might have intended to portray our bride as a headstrong feminist, but really she was not strong enough to battle these forces of society.
The noted Marxist critic Louis Althusser wrote that “an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material” (452). Our cultural institutions are material representations of these ideologies and our literature is a reflection of them. Our society is so overlaid with ideology, accepted practices and institutions that most people do not even realize that they labor under them at all. The Marxist perspective is that we are all slaves to the burden of these ideological and material apparatuses. Roberta Silman’s “Wedding Day” is a prime representation of the imposition of institution and class on humankind on a multitude of levels.
A Marxist critic would approach the text with the following questions in mind. What institutions are embedded in this piece of literature? Are the characters idealists or materialists? Is there a class system at play here? Does the text champion the status quo; is there a revolutionary undercurrent or is this a counter revolutionary text?
The very basis of this story could be seen to be at odds with Marxism. Marriage is an artificial framework for an ideology that enslaves and entangles men and women in an economic arrangement that has significant social implications. Althusser’s belief that ideology is “not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live” (452) could be applied to the convention that is marriage. Two people can live together and not be united under the artificial umbrella called marriage. Yet, all our characters in the story never question the validity and necessity of the institution. It is assumed that one grows up gets married, has children and perpetuates the cycle. The bride says, “Some of my friends are getting engaged, two are married and shopping for furniture, one just had a baby. My parents’ friends are making weddings, watching over the births of grandchildren” (201). The bride and groom come from a home whose parents are married as were their parents before them. The end goal of this thousands-year-old human institution of marriage is never questioned. They perpetuate the apparatus and continue as the “priests’ of this “great ideological mystification” (Althusser, 452).
There is a lot of disappointment flowing throughout this story regarding the bride and groom’s failure to comply with societal norms and expectations regarding exactly how to enter into marriage. While the bride and groom seem intent on doing it in their own unique way, the only change they actually make is regarding the venue and number of guests. Other than that, the actual ceremony and order of the day is quite traditional. They might have had some revolutionary inclinations to break with convention, but those were short lived under the oppression of the family’s expectations and belief system. They are still having a traditional Jewish ceremony with a wedding canopy, fancy dress, photographer, relatives in tow, music and a wedding feast supplied by a kosher catering service to usher the bride and groom into their new life together.
This thing called “wedding” took on a value over and above what the bride and groom seem to have ascribed to it. Marx said, “Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic” (383). It has a meaning far beyond the actual act and it cuts across class lines. A wedding telegraphs a social message of status, emotions and ethics far greater than the two people involved ever imagined. It embodies the full complement of images and implications traversing the millennia of history, up and down the social ladder. In fact, it might actually be of higher value in the higher class as measured by money and status. The bride tells us, “Jean [the cleaning lady] is disappointed that we aren’t having a big wedding. The eldest daughter. Jean can’t understand it. Sometimes, neither can my mother, I realize” (197). The bride and groom are breaching a social taboo with their decision to go small.
Throughout the story there is a pervasive underlying resentment for having to comply with an ideology the groom, the bride and her parents have long abandoned. Althusser speaks of how religious ideology transforms people into subjects (458) and, in this instance; the family has bowed to it even though the bride, her sister and their father confess to not even believing in G-d. The bride notes of her mother, “She believes unequivocally in G-d, which is more than my father and sisters and I do” (201). Yet they all promoted the fully religious ceremony with the traditional Jewish text, canopy and marriage contracts carrying the pretense all the way through to the food served being kosher. That accommodation is due to the older generation in the family.
Althusser writes, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (456). In this story, those individuals are the paternal grandparents of the bride. The grandfather is an orthodox rabbi who performs the associated marriage rituals and the grandmother who checks on the kosher standards of the caterer. The family openly acknowledges these requirements of the grandparents and unquestioningly acquiesces. The sister of the bride says that it would have made no difference where they had the wedding because “you would have had to have all this anyway, to keep Grandpa happy” (200). The father of the bride “is a devoted son” who bows to the wishes of his father who is “learned” and “stubborn” (200) and Grandma “sighs with pleasure” (203) as the religious rites are being performed. Though the bride grumbles about it, she admits that “everything will be done according to the silly thousands-of-years-old rules” (199) in order to keep the peace. While the bride confesses that she is “filled with unreasonable hatred for her [grandmother’s] old, shriveled ways” (206), she does not fight any of her requirements in any overt way.
There are class systems at work in all families. In fact “an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is born” (Althusser, 457). The class system is obvious in this family with each succeeding generation bowing to the ones that came before. In fact, it is a form of the “temporal succession” that Althusser spoke about (457). For institutions to carry forward, succeeding generations must buy into the ideology and carry on the tradition. Althusser writes, “Thus ideology hails or interpellates individuals as subjects” (457). Rituals, religious and otherwise are the material representation of the ideology that serves as the glue for keeping individuals in the institutional fold. Althusser also says that rituals are “the material existence of an ideological apparatus” (453). The rituals are front and center in this story and the grandparents attempt to use them as a method for keeping their families in line with their religious beliefs.
Though most of the story is counter revolutionary, there actually is a break from the past that has already taken place. The so called ridiculous and burdensome rituals have withered away and the charge was led long ago, not by the bride and groom, but by the bride’s parents. They are the ones who sloughed off the old world Jewish traditions to the degree that they “never kept a kosher home” (Silman, 199). The very opening of the story has the bride eating a meatloaf sandwich with a glass of milk, an obvious message of how the home in which she grew up rejected the ideology of their ancestors. As such, the surprise revolutionaries in this story are really the parents. The children that followed just continued in their parents’ rebellious path and that break with materialism.
As Karl Marx stated, “From the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form” (381) and, from an economic standpoint, there is a definite bourgeoisie and proletariat in our story. The family is the former and workers such as the cleaning lady, handymen and caterer are the latter. The cleaning lady is well aware of her position and stakes out her territory. As the daughters glide through the kitchen, they note that “Jean stares at us as if we were spies” (198). There is a definite distance between her and the family evident when she waits on the bride giving her lunch. Jean is “embarrassed and leaves quickly” (197). The mother “is directing two men who have enormous wire frames in their arms” and they “watch the men place white camellias into the wire frames” (198) for the wedding canopy. The mother and grandmother give the caterer directions in the kitchen. All in all, there is a palpable air of workers versus management.
There is also a class subplot between the marrying families. Marx realized this social dynamic in his writing. “There it is a definite social relation between men that assumes in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (382). The bride’s family is in charge of the main action, the material things, and the groom’s family shows up merely as guests. They are treated in a second class manner with hardly a mention and no input into the proceedings. In fact, they are mentioned in unflattering ways. Her future sister-in-law is expecting in a few days and “her feet are so swollen” (202). The wedding is a bit delayed due to the groom’s grandmother not being on the expected train. The bride’s mother and aunt are so annoyed by this event that they give each other sideways glances that say, “In our family we don’t let widowed, seventy-two-year-old grandmothers come from the Bronx to Long Island alone” (204). However, they are forced to accept the fact and acknowledge “now it is their family, they are thinking” (204). Their snobbish bourgeois mentality is apparent and must be adapted to the new reality this wedding brings.
On the whole this story is really counter revolutionary to the Marxist ideology. While the bride and groom like to think of themselves as trail blazers, most of their actions would indicate otherwise. Their family is disappointed in them and, ultimately, Marx would have been as well since they turn out to be more materialist than idealist. The demands and compromises they made with respect to this wedding satisfied no one, probably not even themselves.
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Cixous, Helene (1975), The Laugh of the Medusa. (Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen, Trans.). In Robert Dale Parker (Eds.), Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies (pp. 242-257). New York: Oxford University Press.
du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. (Original work published 1938).
Marx, Karl (1867). The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof. (Samuel Moore & Edward Aveling, Trans.). In Robert Dale Parker (Eds.), Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies (pp. 381-388). New York: Oxford University Press.
Moi, Toril (1985). “Images of Women” Criticism. In Robert Dale Parker (Eds.), Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies (pp. 263-269). New York: Oxford University Press.
Showalter, Elaine (1979). Toward a Feminist Poetics, (pp. 1223-1233).
Silman, Roberta. Wedding Day. In Barbara H. Solomon (Eds.), American Families (pp. 196-207). Canada: New American Library, 1989.