Alone together: gender and alienation in the novels of Barbara Pym
McDonald, Margaret Anne
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In Barbara Pym's distinctive fictional world, the designation of gender roles governs and regulates any and all activity. Closer examination suggests a less conventional interpretation, one that questions the patriarchal ordering inherent to the system. Though Pym may not accommodate the label of feminist novelist, her novels reveal the disparities attendant upon gender stereotyping. Barbara Pym is an inheritor of the tradition exemplified in the novels of Jane Austen, most notably in the utilization of the "marriage plot". Implicit within this fictional device is the promise of marriage at the close, the heroine's hard-won reward for good behaviour. Though Pym's deceptively reticent heroines may harbour some hope of this resolution, few trust the mythology that informs the marriage plot. In consequence, the novels rest on a seeming paradox. They are defined by the rules that govern the conventional romance, but committed to exposing their patent absurdity. Although Pym uses the marriage plot and does not advocate a radical reordering of society, she recognizes that both sexes are victimized by expectations reflected in the marriage plot and maintained through rigid social gradations. The early novels treat the subject of gender with Pym's distinctive blend of detached humour and irony. The later works, while maintaining this property, are tinged with a steadily darkening vision. In this context, the theme of community intrudes more insistently, to gain precedence in the final works. In them, Pym evokes a society increasingly estranged from itself and its past. In this alienated society, the "excellent women" become the repositories and custodians of the custom and ceremony that typify Pym's unique world, and serve as a mediating influence between past, present, and future. Pym envisages a society more feminized than feminist, one that respects the challenge of difference as it is epitomized in gender, but recognizes that only community will ensure survival.