A woman’s lot is not a happy one, goes the old saying. Historically speaking, that much is undeniable. But these days? I don’t know. Being a man I am not qualified to say, really, although my experience of the world, and more importantly the testimony of women I know and have known, has gone some way to convincing me that there is still some truth in it. Certainly, when I was a kid I was aware that, as unpleasant as things were, being a boy I was afforded some level of respect and independence. Automatically. I didn’t need to earn it; it was my birthright, so to speak. Poor as I was, I at least had that. Yet for the girls life was different. Rather than being allowed to enjoy their immaturity, they were expected to help their mothers, to look after their brothers and sisters. To be a girl was also to be accosted and cajoled and pressurised for sexual favours almost without pause. Furthermore, I always got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they were considered something of a disaster-waiting-to-happen, because there was the chance that they might get pregnant and bring another mouth to feed into the [too poor] household. Perhaps this is the reason their parents kept such a close eye on them, why they stifled them and dictated to them, and why they always seemed so unjustifiably angry with them. In any case, what is without question is that I didn’t grow up in the most enlightened community.
To my surprise, The Murderess, written by a man and published in 1903, has much to say about all this. It focuses on Hadoula, an old Greek woman, and her impoverished family. The novel opens with the ‘solid’ and ‘well built’ mother and grandmother looking after her newly born grandchild, while her daughter sleeps. Despite the habitual hardships, Hadoula is shown, albeit more in her memories than in the present, to be strong, cunning and resourceful. For example, during her engagement to her future husband she tries to warn him not to accept the dowry on offer, a dowry made up of essentially useless land and property that, as she foresaw, leaves the couple and their children in a trying situation. Moreover, it is told how she stole not only from her husband, but from her parents also, and how this money allowed her to build a house.
If it wasn’t for the title, the early stages of the book would lead you to believe that The Murderess was going to be similar to Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, that, specifically, it was written in praise of endurance, as a kind of homage to the working class and their will and ability to survive in tough or terrible circumstances. But it is, in fact, almost the opposite, for Hadoula, no matter how resolute she may have been for nearly sixty years, finally, shockingly, succumbs to madness and does a bad thing. And then another. And then another. Yet one of the impressive things about Papadiamantis’ work is that in spite of these actions, which manage to disturb even though you are prepared for them, one is still likely to feel some level of sympathy for her. [This is not, of course, the same as saying that you condone what she does, or even that your entire sympathies are with her].
“She thought over a thousand things, and sleep did not come to her easily. Her ponderings and memories, dim images of the past, arose in her mind one after the other like waves that her soul could see.”
The Murderess is essentially a very fine existential thriller, one that, as many readers have noted previously, has something in common with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This something relates to how the murderer [or murderess, in this instance] justifies the crime[s] with logic. For Raskolnikov the argument, in short, is that if he is superior then conventional morality need not apply to him. In Hadoula’s case, she is motivated to act by the belief that, first of all, to be female, in her time and in her community, is to live a miserable existence, and that to live a miserable existence is worse than being dead or in Heaven. Secondly, not only are little girls destined for an unhappy life, but they are also a burden to their parents [for they need to be married off, given a dowry, and so on]. And, so, if these things are true, then both the parents and the children would be ’better off’ if the girls were not around.
One sees in this a neat combination of the psychological, the philosophical and the socio-political, giving the novel a depth that belies its small number of pages. I wrote previously that one will likely sympathise with Hadoula, and the reason for this is twofold: one takes account of her trying circumstances, the years of misery and strife, and one can understand how a mind put under this kind of constant strain may begin to ‘smoke,’ even if the body continues to survive its punishment. However, one must not forget that she is a serial killer, and quite a cold one at that, or certainly one who acts with ‘malice aforethought,’ rather than rashly or impulsively. She doesn’t murder one person in a ‘moment of madness,’ and then regret it, or grieve about it, etc. Quite the contrary, she considers what she is about to do, she mulls it over, decides that it is the right action…and, crucially, then goes through with it [for it is one thing to develop a philosophy, but another to act upon it]. She is, all told, one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered.
[A scene from the opera of the same name, which is based on Papadiamantis’ book]
‘Written by a man’….you may have detected an element of disbelief in that statement. This is not to say that it is unusual for a man to make a woman or women the dominant force in his work, but rather that this is one of the few male-authored novels I can name [and followers of this blog will be aware that I have read thousands] that appears to be so totally, so sensitively and intelligently, committed to what you might call ‘feminist concerns’ [although these issues should, of course, concern us all]. I imagine that what I mean by that will already be obvious, but let me provide another example: in the opening pages, Hadoula laments that her entire life has been spent in servitude to others [and, in fact, one could see her subsequent behaviour as an attempt to murder herself, to end her own misery]. Furthermore, all of the women in the novel are intelligent, aware, hardworking, and spirited – without ever being romanticised or made to seem angelic or without fault – and yet they are all undervalued [or ignored], all dispossessed and put upon.
It is worth noting that, in comparison, the men in The Murderess are invariably bastards or essentially useless. Hadoula’s husband was a drunk and more or less an idiot; one of her sons is prone to extreme violence; and two others left home and never write. In this way, one can’t help but think that the old woman got it all wrong, that it is the husbands, the sons, the fathers that are the real burden, although I’m not, of course, suggesting that she ought to have done away with them instead.