In April of this year, an interviewer asked Claire Messud a silly question about Nora Eldridge, the complex and prickly protagonist of Messud’s new novel The Woman Upstairs: would Messud want to be friends with her?1 Messud’s exasperated answer—“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?”—was interpreted by some readers as evidence that the author of The Woman Upstairs was every bit as angry, and therefore as unsympathetic, as her fictional creation. Messud went on to list complex, disagreeable male characters created by male authors (“Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”) and suggested that those who read fiction looking for potential friends are missing the point of the novelist’s art.
Messud’s tart response sparked an Internet debate that was ostensibly about whether novelists should make their characters likable, and whether female authors are held to a different standard than male ones in this regard. But other questions shadow these. Does a female writer have the right to suggest that her gender might affect how her work is received? Is she entitled to compare herself to Shakespeare (or to Martin Amis, for that matter), or is such a comparison hubris? Are readers able to separate a female author’s creations from the author herself, or is she doomed to be conflated with the female characters she has imagined, and condemned for their perceived failings in a way that men who write fiction are not?
Messud’s Nora is certainly angry. We know this from the opening sentences of the novel:
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
A specific incident has triggered the state of explosive rage in which Nora finds herself at the novel’s outset. But Messud establishes through extended flashbacks that Nora’s anger is a chronic condition she has been at pains to conceal. A “good girl” for 42 years, she has successfully played a devoted caretaker to her parents, a beloved teacher to her class of third graders, and a supportive, self-effacing helpmeet to her few close friends. Her dreams of artistic success have largely been thwarted, though she points out that “the failure … is all mine, in the end.” She feels frustrated, humiliated, isolated, rejected, and disappointed in herself and in others, but even at her most furious, she remains self-aware.
Sirena’s imagination is not the only thing that Nora covets.
Nora’s world is changed irrevocably by the arrival in her Cambridge classroom of Reza Shahid, the son of Skandar, a visiting professor at Harvard, and Sirena, an artist—“[a] real one,” Nora notes. Reza is bullied at school; Nora and Sirena meet over coffee to discuss his problems and end up talking about their shared need to make art. After a friendly, increasingly intimate conversation, Sirena suggests that they rent a studio together, and Nora leaps at the chance. Over the course of the “first Shahid year,” Nora becomes entwined in the lives of all three—mother, father, and son—who, together and separately, come to embody Nora’s most carefully hidden desires.
The art Nora begins to make in her new studio takes the form of “little things … rooms the size of shoe boxes, Joseph Cornell–scaled dioramas” depicting the milieus of various female artists in perfect miniature: Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom; Edie Sedgwick’s room in Warhol’s Factory. Sirena’s medium is installations—sweeping fairy-tale landscapes “made out of household items and refuse.” Nora’s small-scale, contained, obsessive work reflects her character, as Sirena’s overflowing, seductive, ultimately deceptive output reflects hers. Both are gendered; both are a little absurd. But Sirena’s art has the power to gain recognition from the rest of the world, while Nora knows that hers, in its current form, does not. She admits of her friend, “I coveted her very imagination, and wished it were mine.”
Sirena’s imagination is not the only thing that Nora covets. The time they spend together in the studio spills over into life outside, with complicated consequences. An old friend skeptically summarizes the effect she thinks the Shahids have had on Nora: “So you’re in love with Sirena, and you want to fuck her husband and steal her child.” Nora insists, not entirely convincingly, that her friend has it wrong, that she is not in love with the Shahids but with the possibilities they represent for her. Not least among these possibilities is the hope of a larger life—the hope that she is not doomed to be a lonely middle-aged schoolteacher for whom the highlight of the day is a rerun of Law and Order, or possibly the arrival of the Garnet Hill catalog.
Many seem unable to tolerate Nora’s “unlikability.” Guardian interviewer Alex Clark notes that “some readers have asked Messud whether Nora … is insane.” The interviewer from Publishers Weekly, Annasue McCleave Wilson, suggested that she would not want to be friends with Nora “because her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” But it isn’t—not really. Nora’s fury is ultimately hopeful. Even as she rants, she suggests: “Maybe … I’ll set the world on fire.” She hasn’t given up. If anything, she has been liberated by disappointment, betrayal, and the recognition of her own failings. Nora is both a recognizable and a sympathetic character. Her fears of insignificance, lack of fulfillment, and loneliness seem very real.
To find Nora difficult or unpleasant is reasonable; to dismiss her as crazy or unlikable because she is a female character who expresses anger is not.
In her interview with the Guardian, Messud notes that she imagined Nora as someone who would actually do a very effective job of appearing likable. “That’s the point. It costs her a great deal to be a likable character … she feels she has had to hide … her real thoughts, her real dreams, her real desires, because they would be in some way unseemly or perhaps off-putting to others.” If one is willing to acknowledge the humanity of a woman wrestling with both her characteristically feminine need to please and her feminist desire to vanquish that need, Nora’s struggle is a very human one. Messud’s exploration of it makes for rewarding, if not always comfortable, reading. To find Nora difficult or unpleasant is reasonable; to dismiss her as crazy or unlikable because she is a female character who expresses anger is not.
Messud has been taken to task—notably by novelist Jennifer Weiner in Slate—for having the temerity and arrogance to want to distinguish her novels from more popular fare, especially from commercial fiction authored by women. Messud’s suggestion that the question of likability is an inherently gendered one has raised some eyebrows, as has her comparison of her own “unlikable” character to those created by Dostoyevsky, Pynchon, Franzen, et al. Criticism of The Woman Upstairs blurs into criticism of its author. If Messud compares herself to great writers of the past, then she must see herself within their ranks; if her main character is angry, then she, too, must be angry.
The tendency to associate a woman writer with her difficult or disagreeable protagonist isn’t new, of course. In 1853, after reading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Matthew Arnold famously wrote:
Why is Villette disagreeable? Because the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage, and therefore that is all she can in fact put into her book.
Arnold was not the only reader to offer this reductive biographical reading of Brontë’s novel. Many other reviewers suggested that the novel was unrealistic and unappealing because its heroine, Lucy Snowe, was depicted as angry, depressed, frustrated, and lonely; many extended this observation to conclude that the novel’s author must share these unseemly characteristics. A hundred and sixty years later, we do not seem to have progressed in our assumptions about the relationship between female authors and their complicated protagonists.
- Annasue McCleave Wilson, “An Unseemly Emotion: PW Talks with Claire Messud,” Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2013. ↩