Death, Limitation, and Gender

Reviewed by Justin Shaw

Terry Eagleton suggests that “the self-giving of friendship is a kind of petit mort, an act with the inner structure of dying.” Likewise, death has been figuratively understood as the social or institutional limits imposed on a life trajectory. In this regard, when death itself becomes imminent, it forces us to reckon with how we negotiated these limits, and whether we in turn imposed limits upon others, or chose instead the self-giving of friendship. Both Michel Tremblay’s Crossing the Continent (2011) and David Gilmour’s Extraordinary (2013) explore the effects of gendered limitation on two Canadian women, the former tracing the coming of age and into femininity of a girl from rural Saskatchewan in the early twentieth century, while the latter depicts the final evening of a wheelchair-bound woman who reflects upon the impediments that have shaped her life and her decision to commit suicide. In their encounters with gendered limitation, these characters learn to reconcile death with a meaningful life.

In Tremblay’s novel, Rhéauna’s life with her grandparents and sisters is disrupted when her estranged mother requests that her daughters live with her in Montreal. Rhéauna’s departure from the rural idyll of her childhood is likened to death: “She thought about dying or, rather, that’s what death was: a definitive departure for an unknown destination.” This departure marks the death of Rhéauna’s small town innocence, even though the rural prairies are revealed to have their own dark history of European imperialism, including the expulsion of the Cree. Rhéauna will come to critique related notions of “civilization” and “progress” in the urban lifestyle of her relatives on her trip to Montreal.

Generally, Tremblay’s novel unfolds through Rhéauna’s point of view, which is filtered through the traditional lenses of her elders. This worldview proves to be limited and limiting. Rhéauna’s inherited values and preconceived notions are challenged by the nuance of first-hand experience. Her aunt Regina, who is generally disliked for being unpleasant and unfeminine—the “bad cook or sour shrew” in the family—is revealed to be a talented pianist; whereas her aunt Bebette, who is generally approved as strong-willed but respectable, is actually revealed to be insufferably overbearing. Regina gives off an air of quiet desperation but finds solace in her music, while Bebette’s desperation is of a louder variety and manifests itself in ostentation.

Tremblay displays sensitivity to the pressures of conforming to gender ideals, and the social repercussions for pursuing alternatives. In Rhéauna’s eyes, Regina’s music has “the power to soothe you during the difficult moments of life and ornament the happy moments with one more rapture.” Thus, Regina conveys the opposite of empty gendered affect. If anything, she is sincere: having accepted imperfection—her own, the world’s. Her sustenance is the transcendent release provided by her artistic talents, an “ornamentation” that contrasts with Babette’s material excesses. Babette is a conspicuous consumer, and she serves decadent, high-caloric meals to her corpulent husband who is gorging himself to death, a self-prescribed palliative for incurable prostate cancer.

In truth, Babette is the inversion of Regina: on the surface she is composed, buoyant, if not commanding, but Rhéauna senses an underlying unease. When Babette literally forces a birthday party upon Rhéauna, she plans it with a “ridiculous energy that is very close to despair.” In this way, Babette and her husband represent the excesses of urban “civilization”—exemplified in the pageantry of Rhéauna’s birthday party, which is awash in movement and pleasantries, but little personal engagement. Babette’s association with the “big city” and its markers of modernity, aligns her busy-bodied character with progress itself. She chimes: “You can’t stop progress, can you?” But Tremblay reveals the underlying humanity in Babette, especially in her dedication to her husband’s plight, which is sublime in its grotesquerie and compassion.

Gilmour’s novel is narrated from a male point of view and focusses on a single evening, in which a brother helps his sister, Sally, commit suicide in her apartment. In extended monologue, Sally reflects upon her ex, Bruce, revealing her past gender preferences which limited her to choose a “masculine” man who turned out to be incompatible with her erudite “femininity”. She had “admired” his “old-fashioned, tight-lipped masculinity, suggesting that “real men” were “a rare thing these days,” and confessing that “what women like about men is that they are not women. And they don’t think like women.” But it is precisely this rigid gender binary that leads to their dissolution: Bruce’s taciturnity develops into social anxiety, jealousy, and a general breakdown in communication, prompting Sally to leave.

Breaking free of these gendered limitations, Sally becomes an independent woman living on the profits of a business deal. She takes her children with her to San Miguel, Mexico—much to Bruce’s chagrin—and it is here, seemingly at the height of her independence, that she has an accident, a mere trip and fall, that renders her immobile. And while lying on the floor, she imagines Bruce saying: “She brought this on herself.” It is in this moment of weakness that a repressed masculine voice of judgement emerges, which is really her own internalized voice of patriarchy, condemning her for transgressing certain gender limits.

In this way, Sally’s accident is a figurative death, a limitation of her newly acquired freedom. But here, actual death is construed as a last choice, an act of empowered volition, because it is what she wants. In this sense, the narrator is performing the penultimate selfless act for another: facilitating and bearing witness to the freedom to choose the ending of one’s own life. Thus, the narrator’s act is a petit mort—in Eagleton’s sense—par excellence: a self-giving of friendship that actually puts him in a direct relationship with the freely chosen suicide of a loved one. Such “self-giving”—though not always to this extreme—can prepare us for the complete loss of self, gender included, that is death.

This review “Death, Limitation, and Gender” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 157-58.

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