Women and the Novel: Virgin/Whore Dichotomy

I have been making an attempt to get on top of my readings for class and so this week brought me to read Settlers of the Marsh (1925) by Fredrick Philip Grove for my class about The Novel.

Fredrick Philip Grove was born Felix Paul Greve in West Prussia in 1879. After faking his own death, he came to Canada in 1912 under his new name and became a teacher in Manitoba. Settlers of the Marsh his first novel written in English.

Settlers is neither written by a woman nor is it focalized through women characters but I want to talk about it because the portrayal of women in this early 20th Century novel has got me riled up! Yes, I am surprised to find myself so bothered by a settlers on the Canadian prairie novel, but here it goes.

Settlers of the Marsh follows Niels Lindstedt, an immigrant from Switzerland, as he settles land in Manitoba, Canada. Niels is a taciturn man but works hard and is determined to realize his dreams of homestead, wife, and children. The novel deals with a lot of imagery about land, cyclical time, silence, space, and isolation. Although the narration deals in realism, focusing on the harsh climate, work, and oppressive isolation of settling land, there are also elements of Niels’s Romantic, idealized nature.

There are two women that stand out for me in Settlers. He first meets Ellen Amundsen when he goes to dig a well on her father’s property. Ellen works her father’s farm as though she were a man herself. She is described as androgynous, sexless, and innocent. Over the course of several years she and Niels hardly speak half a dozen words to one another, yet Niels has decided that she is the woman in his vision of life. He spends several years building up his homestead, clearing fields, breeding horses, and becoming prosperous, all for her.

His love for Ellen is illustrated as innocent and pure. They are often described as ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ when spending time together and this lends to their child-like purity. This is all very sweet, but it is also clear that Ellen is being set up as the Virgin for this story and where there is a Virgin, there must be a Whore.

Enter Clara Vogal/Lindstedt. Upon meeting Clara, Niels notes her feminine, womanly, flirtatious image in contrast to Ellen. Clara is a widow and seems to take a quick liking to Niels. One day, upon a chance meeting in town, after Niels is rejected by Ellen (who tells him she will never marry so as to avoid the same domestic abuses her mother suffered), he sleeps with Clara and the next day  marries her.

Clara is immensely unhappy about being brought out to the farm to live. She does not like to work on the farm, she does not like to cook or clean, and does not like to be left alone all day long. Their marriage breaks down quickly and by this point I was starting to get a very distinct “mad woman in the attic” feeling about Clara. Eventually, Niels leaves her in the house while he stays in a small shack on the property. Clara is left to lurk the house alone, not coming down for food until late in the night when Niels won’t enter.

Clara is literally given the title Whore when it is revealed that all Niels’ friends and neighbors will not visit him because they know he married the ‘District Whore.’ It is never revealed as to whether Clara receives money from men or not. In this way I think that she is only labeled Whore because she is sexually liberated as she freely spending her time with men, experienced, worldly, and knowledgeable (she reads a variety of novels; Niels reads only the Bible) in ways that Niels is not and as a matter of fact fears.

Once this dichotomy became clear, I knew that Clara wasn’t going to make it out of this novel alive. Sure enough, upon discovering his wife (who he does not love or care about) with another man, Niels takes a shot gun and murders her. Clara is vilified and punished for her refusal to take up her feminine role on the farm, for her sexual experiences, and for being knowledgeable and like so many novels I have studied thus far for class… she dies.

After spending some time (7 years) in prison for murder, Niels returns to the marsh where he is reunited with Ellen who has finally decided to take up her feminine role as wife and mother to live happily ever after with Niels… the nice guy wife murderer.

Makes you feel all warm and barfy instead, don’t it?

Time and time again women’s intelligence and sexual awareness is trampled down and snuffed out in the history of the novel. I am growing weary of the amount of women who find their tragic demise due to their rejection of or are spared because of their willingness to pick up the role of femininity. The only instances that I have seen this dichotomy shift is when the novel has a woman author. Although it may not always be the case, I think there is something to the concept of women writing about women and therefore having a shifted, more nuanced perspective on femininity and patriarchal oppression (whether they are naming those things or not).

What are your thoughts on virgin/whore dichotomies in literature and popular fiction? Are women still vilified for possessing too much sexual/intellectual/worldly knowledge? Do we call it slut shaming now? And does women’s writing explode or support these notions of femininity or womanhood?



2 thoughts on “Women and the Novel: Virgin/Whore Dichotomy

  1. I know you’re busy reading other more interesting things, but if you’d ever like to read another pioneer book, written by and about women, I’d recommend “O, Pioneers” by Willa Cather, if you haven’t read it. Similar themes, much different spin on things.

    1. Someone else was telling me about that book when I was ranting about Settlers. It’s been so long since I’ve read “pioneer” lit… Settlers really reminded me of Little House on the Prairie but, you know, with more woman murder and less adorable Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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