The (Fe)Male Prison

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).

One thought on “The (Fe)Male Prison”

  1. I totally agree with this reading!

    You stated that you think Baldwin left Hella’s character as intentionally two-dimensional in order to show how her character is representative of some hetero-American dream. Judging by the works by Baldwin that we’ve read thus far, I would agree that the neglect to Hella’s character is intentional…but do you think that the effect is totally there for the reader?

    I will admit that I was a bit put off by Hella’s character at times. I empathized with her, perhaps because she was really the only woman character, but I also placed an immense pressure to represent all of womanhood because of this. So, when she began to associate her relationship with David as her only opportunity to “be a woman,” I started to think that this was a claim that the text was endorsing (rather than simply proposing while giving readers space to challenge or question).

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