By Francine Du Plessix Gray
316 pages
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1967, originally.
ISBN # 0-393-30547-3

Comments of Bob Corbett
September 2002

This is Stephanie’s story; Stephanie’s story of Stephanie’s life and journey toward her own independence. On just the second page the theme of the entire book is spelled out in her memories of her fourth year of life:

“I shall never cease to marvel at the way we beg for love and tyranny. The first offerer of these charities came into my life when I was four years old.”

Much later in the book she spells out the theme in greater detail:

“The voids of my childhood, I guess, they made me too greedy for love and shelter to risk being the bad girl which every true liberation still forces a woman to be. I think I might have a novel right here in these very themes: One: a woman’s life as a series of exorcisms from the spells of different oppressors. Two: We must name the identities of each jailer before we can claw our way toward the next stage of freedom…”

This passage mirrors the structure of the book as well as the content. She gives us several “slices” of her life. Born in 1931, Stephanie tells us of struggles against the tyrant lovers in 1935 (the governess), 1940 (family), 1944 (school and friends), 1954 (first lovers), 1963 (life in the extended family), 1966 (final liberation from her father’s 1940 death), 1969 (marriage and family), 1970s (liberation and death).

We follow her life from being born into a wealthy and aristocratic family in France to the escape of her and her mother from Paris after it was occupied, moving to the U.S. and living a life at a very different economic station, but with her mother still living as through they were in Europe, wealthy and as though aristocracy mattered. We follow Stephanie through high school, university, a series of lovers and into marriage and finally a last ditch effort at full liberation.

What is fascinating to me in this extremely well told tale is her view that those who love us the most are the greatest tyrants. In her case this is not because she was treated badly. Her governess is perhaps the least attractive character in the book and did certainly repress Stephanie’s early years. Yet it is clear that she meant well and cared for Stephanie with great devotion. Actually that is part of Stephanie’s point: it was her deep caring and perception of love which made her such a tyrant.

When Stephanie finally marries and has children she loves her husband and he her. She loves her children though we hear very little about them. But husband Paul smothers her with HIS world and she needs liberation.

The question is: Is genuine love without tyranny impossible? Stephanie seems to think so and she make a strong case for her position. But there is a hidden assumption. The word “tyranny” is loaded with value. If we work through the description of her life and look for a less value laden description Stephanie seems to show the obvious: intimate relationships (husband, children, family – mother, father, siblings, close friends, lovers) are demanding. They are give and take. We love and give and take. A different root might be to center on the self and not give (but not get to take either). This is a difficult choice and we often negotiate what each of us finds as our own middle ground. Certainly in our traditional cultures we are encouraged toward all of these relationships and giving up a huge amount of personal freedom for the benefits to self, others and the society as a whole, suffering, in the process, much of our individual freedom. But what are the ultimate values here? Is liberty the greatest of all values as Stephanie seems to suggest? I am not taking a stand. It is an extremely difficult and complex problem, but I just note that Stephanie isn’t concerned about this issue at all. Lovers are tyrants and the meaning of existence is liberation. It just not all that clear to me.

However, I think Stephanie would take it a step further. For her this dynamic is a special problem for women. She never takes the stand that men are not oppressed by their various lovers, but that women are much more so oppressed and that this oppression is a part of the very fiber and structure of all social relations. She does make a very strong case for that proposition, but in the process simply ignore the issue in relationship to men. There is no need for her to do otherwise, but it may lead readers to not ask the question of the similar (if lesser) structure of what she calls “tyranny” toward men.

This is a very thoughtful and provocative book. I don’t know how I managed to “miss” it all these years given that it was published in 1967, but I am very happy that I did stumble upon it and have read it now. It is deeply challenging and enlightening.

Further, the book is very well written, structured well in the various “periods” of Stephanie’s life with marvelous characters and a central character of gripping interest. She is at the same time strong in her pursuit of this desired liberty, yet weak in her ability to achieve it. In other words she is very human and believable.

For me one of the strongest arguments that the book was well written is that, while I could not avoid the question coming forward: to what extent is this an autobiographical novel; is Stephanie Francine Du Plessix Gray? When I finished the book and allowed myself to look at bit at Gray’s life, I could see a strong case developing that this hypothesis might make sense. Gray was born at that time in France, came to the U.S. was educated in the same manner as Stephanie and so on. Then, however, it dawned on me that even it is were a fictionalized autobiography, or even one not very fictionalized, but just an autobiography masking itself as a novel, it would make no difference. The character of Stephanie is so well done by Gray that the “reality” of her life would add nothing to the novel and allow us to “solve” no outstanding problems in understanding the book. Gray didn’t leave any interesting problems unsolved. The character of Stephanie stands on her own, and that to me is strong evidence of a book well written.

Bob Corbett

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