Romance and Waiting

An academic argues that women always wait:
Literature bears out Barthes’s claim and my experience: In books, it is always women who wait. In the Odyssey, Penelope awaits the return of her husband for twenty years, weaving a funeral shroud for her father during the day and unraveling it during the night to put off intermediary suitors, one of whom she will wed when the interminable tapestry is finally complete. Penelope is the product of an oral lyrical tradition that excluded women, and it is only fitting that a male authorship relegated her to the sort of maddening inactivity that waiting so often entails.
The whole tradition of chivalric literature runs the other way. In the literature of a thousand years, the man -- the knight -- serves patiently in the hope of a woman electing to reward him with her love. This is often described as "mercy" or "grace," as she is not in any way required to do so by the forms of the literature.

Consider this bit from Le Morte D'arthur, in which the good knight Beaumains has fought a number of the great knights of the world, and overcome them, in order to free a lady who was being besieged by them. Her sister says to go and see her, but when he gets there...
NOW turn we unto Sir Beaumains that desired of Linet that he might see her sister, his lady. Sir, she said, I would fain ye saw her. Then Sir Beaumains all armed him, and took his horse and his spear, and rode straight unto the castle. And when he came to the gate he found there many men armed, and pulled up the drawbridge and drew the port close.

Then marvelled he why they would not suffer him to enter. And then he looked up to the window; and there he saw the fair Lionesse that said on high: Go thy way, Sir Beaumains, for as yet thou shalt not have wholly my love, unto the time that thou be called one of the number of the worthy knights.
My guess is that there's a lot more literature like this, even outside the chivalric tradition. Waiting for a beloved, even forever, is a sadly universal experience.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

The quick answer is that this chivalric value in Mort D'Arthur is something of an accommodation by the entering Christian culture to the underlying Germanic cultures which gave higher status to women than the cultures to the south. That's the conventional wisdom - don't know if it's an exaggeration.

Interesting that while women seemed to be held in little regard, they still figure prominently in the goddesses, saints, and in the minds of the heroes the literature is about. I don't want to draw glib conclusions from this.

Grim said...

There's some small difference between Egil Skallagrimsson and Lancelot du Lac. A man like me might be either one. It's important which one, don't you think?

douglas said...

Pygmalion can't find a good woman, so carves a statue of he perfect woman. Waits. Is taken pity upon by Aphrodite who brings the statue (Galatea) to life. So, he had to wait for the perfect woman, no?

Grim said...

Good point.

Even the author's own chosen example is a little strange. The Odyssey opens with Odysseus waiting -- crying, in tears, as he is held prisoner and forbidden from going home to Penelope. He is being held at the will of a female entity, not a woman but an immortal, forced to wait because it pleases her.

jaed said...

That men act doesn't mean they are all-powerful. Men in such stories are often held prisoner or temporarily helpless in some way in the face of overwhelming force.

Odysseus is a homesick captive at the opening of the Odyssey, but he acts throughout—he's the one who left and comes home, he wends his way through adventures and overcomes adversaries, and finally he frees the house of the suitors. Penelope doesn't really do anything other than fend off the suitors. This is a clever and loyal thing for her to do, and these are virtues for which Penelope is celebrated, but it's very passive.

Grim said...

Well, if you remember, it's Athena who acts to get him out of that situation. Kyrke is active, and so is Athena, and so is Penelope in her way. Indeed, Penelope is the one whose actions are making the suitors wait -- for ten years!

If I were going to try to break it into a "X always waits" model, I'd have done it on the mortal/immortal lines. The gods don't have to wait, or they don't mind waiting (perhaps because they are so old, perhaps because they have forever). It's the mortals who feel the pain of waiting, as they feel the pain of death.