Short story: “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman”

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“A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman,” by Margaret Drabble

Appeared in Cosmopolitan in October 1973; also in the collection of the same title*

Around 25.5 full pages in my edition; approximately 8,619 words, though that seems like a lot**

The only reason I picked up this short story collection was to reread an old favorite of mine (“The Gifts of War”), and the only reason I started reading this story was idle curiosity about whether the title came from Plath‘s line “And I a smiling woman.” (Maybe.) Then I couldn’t put it down.

Perhaps predictably, the story never actually states the nature of the awful thing inside Jenny, letting it remain just kind of a heavy-handed symbol (a discreetly hidden disease at her core/at the core of her very womanness***). There’s a mention of “malignant growths” but also, vaguely, “polyps and ulcers[.]” On reflection, I speculated that the thing was a malformed fetus, but that’s unlikely since Jenny and the narrator never personify it in any way. More likely it’s just a tumor, a hidden part of herself that grew out of control.

At the climax, when she’s sitting through the headmistress’s stupid speech, I expected her revelation to lead to her being true to herself, publicly, scandalously, for the first time in her life. Perhaps by a deliberate act of courage or perhaps because her body, bleeding out uncontrollably, is more honest than she is. I still feel like that would be a viable character-redemption-type ending (albeit one I’ve seen in a few movies). But maybe this is essential to what the story shows us about the society she lives in: honesty wouldn’t help. If Jenny Jamieson didn’t play along with other people’s nepotism and pettiness and stupidity, she would not be a success.

Here’s something that amazes me: The children don’t have names. They don’t even seem to have a number. More than two, clearly. The narrator gives us the names of the foreign servant, the husband, the committee members, the headmistress, everybody except the ones who supposedly matter most to Jenny. The children are actually an abstraction. She has a whole self-lacerating fantasy about them grieving her, but it’s an abstract fantasy, a generalized portrait of orphanly grief. (I was about to tag this post “unnamed major characters,” but these alleged children are only one out of three.)

Jenny never asks herself what business she and her husband have raising kids in the first place. The closest she comes is when she thinks, “I treat people like children, and I treat my children like adults.” I wonder if she really loves them at all. To treat them like adults means, surely, to treat them the way she treats herself after her awakening. Does she let them bleed while keeping up appearances? Does she tell them what she didn’t tell the schoolgirls, that she is a liar?

“Looking back, she was to think of this day as both a joke and a victory, but at whose expense, and over whom, she could not have said.” If she doesn’t really love her children, then her speech is an act of capitulation, regardless of how self-aware she is and how gracefully she carries it off. I think the story leaves it ambiguous though. You could read Jenny as genuinely loving  her children (abstractly or not) and you could read her speech as an affirmation that she will go on living, no matter how starved and false a life it is—her own pathetic victory over death.

At first I saw the husband as a villainous representative of the thing that screwed Jenny up so badly, the contradictory pressures that our society places on women: Be a perfect beauty and homemaker and careerist, but not too perfect, or men will hate you. But it occurs to me that at least as an individual, he has a good reason to hate his wife. He doesn’t keep up appearances as well as she does; it may be that he’s not just less polished but also more honest than she is. “He would accuse her of neglecting him and the children”—a typical sexist jab at a career woman, so fatuous that I actually forgot the specific content of the accusation and had to hunt it down in the text just now. And yet, having read the whole story, I think he’s got a point. She “neglect[s]” them, not necessarily by expending her time and emotional energy elsewhere, but by being essentially hollow. Perhaps his “morose[ness]” when she screams at him has a touch of relief in it, seeing her act like a human being. He doesn’t show satisfaction the way a merely malicious abuser would.

Oh geez, what if she’s bleeding because he hit her in the wrong place one night? Okay that would make him the villain after all. Whatever, he’s boring.

One more great line, because there are so many: “But it would absorb a great deal before it marked.” Ha ha, yes, Jenny, the dress was you all along.

*The collection is titled A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, not Cosmopolitan.

**An average of 10.0625 words per full line, which makes about 338 on the sample page I picked.

***I realize genitals aren’t really the same as womanness, like see transgender and intersex people, but we’re deep in symbolic territory here. Anything concave is obviously a bleeding gash of primal concentrated Woman.

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