I know it seems counterproductive to think about the role of women in a book all about men, but Hella’s been on my mind a lot this past week. I commented on Faith’s last post about the ways in which Hella constitutes an “easy way out” for David. Even though he does not love her, he values all that she represents as a woman: a socially acceptable heterosexual relationship, a couple of kids and white picket fence, and the promises of the American Dream™.
What I find especially remarkable about Hella is just how incredibly unremarkable she is. Hella is hardly featured in the novel; aside from a brief appearance in the final chapters, she exists primarily as a vague, nebulous concept to which David periodically alludes but who never fully develops as a character. In fact, for all the many times she’s mentioned by other characters, all we really know about her is that she really submits to the patriarchy: her self-proclaimed purpose in life seems to be nothing more than to marry a man and to raise his children–to exist as someone’s “obedient and most loving servant,” which she professes is “all [she’s] good for” (EN&S 323-324)
Despite an initial reactionary distaste, it now occurs to me that Baldwin never intended to develop Hella because she’s not really a person at all: she’s a doorstop! Hella’s function is analogous to Madeleine’s in “The Male Prison.” As Baldwin describes it, “Madeleine kept open for [Gide] a kind of door of hope, of possibility, the possibility of entering into communion with another sex. This door, which is the door to life and air and freedom from the tyranny of one’s own personality, must be kept open, and none feel this more keenly than those on whom the door is perpetually threatening or has already seemed to close” (CE 233).
In exactly the same way that Madeleine appeals to Gide, so, too, does Hella appeal to David: not as an autonomous human being with her own thoughts and feelings, but as a representation of the nuclear family and the traditional gender roles into which David so damnably wants to fit. Hella is nothing more than a solution to David’s problems–a “steady ground, like the earth itself, where [he] could always be renewed” (EN&S 302).