Donald Barthelme was born in the year1931. So the Barthelme was born nearly a little less than a century later than the time the term feminism was coined. But he died in 1989, a time when the concept Feminism had taken root and was an established movement which has thousands of supporters from both genders.
On the surface his writings were filled with bizarre incidents but there was always an underlying theme or idea that would try to explore the boundaries of the world as people knew it, in that time and age. Barthelme's world has a framework that revolves around a disturbing level of uncertainty that somehow in one way or the other has a rational underlying tone to it. Feminism was activism based on promoting equal rights for women and political power along with ensuring sexual, individual and reproductive rights for females (Cambridge Dictionary Online).
A City of Churches
A city of churches is a short story by Donald Barthelme that deals with the story of a town. The protagonist is a woman. The ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ that was drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She listed fifteen grievances that the feminist movement felt that the women of the word in general had to face even though the backward ages were gone and a new era had dawned. One major grievance that was listed in the declaration was that women were generally barred from profitable employment or employment that fell out of the normal sphere that and was thought to be the domain of the all dominating man.
In the short story Barthelme describes a woman who wants to start a rental car service business in a new city she has just moved into. The city is Prester- the city of Churches. The protagonist is a female Cecilia Till this point the story is a considerably ordinary but then comes a point where Cecilia walks out into the city to find that every building indeed in the city is a church.
Such breaking away from stereotype and non-conformity is what gives strength to a female in a society where she needs to assert her individuality to be seen as an equal. Till this point the story is a very normal tale. But then an ironic situation starts, when the woman who was supposed to run an automobile business finds out that not only is every other building in the city a church but rather every business is attached to this or the other church and not only this but another disturbing fact is that the protagonist of the story-Cecilia finds out that the city is conforming every resident into a pre-arranged fixed position.
Cecilia’s Precarious Position
Even Cecilia and her business will be affiliated with a church and that she will also have to live in a church albeit she will be given the choice of choosing the church she wants to spend her life in. This option that was given to Cecilia is also a paradox and represents the sort of fixed choices given to women in male dominated societies in the world.
This paradox that women face in real life is so thoroughly explored and represented by the writer in a simple and critical manner. The woman is given a choice of choosing between this or that and even that choice is so illogical and constraining, just like choosing between one church or another instead of living in a house of her own choice.
Just as the society has allowed her to open up a business that is normally considered to be male dominated yet at the same time she is told that most of the people in the society have a car of their own and nobody in the city is likely to rent or hire a car from her but that all is of little consequence because there was a position always there for her and now that she has moved to the city, she will move into a church and completes the pre-determined idea of the city by standing behind the counter and playing an already determined role of the rental car business lady.
This fixing of a woman in a fixed mold socially is what the feminist movement always fought against. The limited freedom that woman had. They were always considered second to men and they had to conform to the norms of the society and were considered lower beings that were not allowed to test the boundaries of the mold they were placed into.
There is a kind of mass obsessive compulsive disorder in the whole city that somehow exhibits a desperate need to conform and appear uniform. The feminist movement was a movement of freedom and fighting against this compulsion of placing women into fixed boundaries and somehow caging them in the shackles of societal norms while giving the appearance of allowing freedom. This was a universal situation and still somehow exists in the world at large.
Women all over the world and in every country have had their own versions of the feminist movement and every religion in one way or another has tried to put hindrances in the way of feminist movement. The societies all over the globe have been mostly patriarchal in nature and changing that to equality based society is a continuous process and has been happening. The change is there but the change is very slow.
The subtle style of commentary that Donald Barthelme has done into his short story is his signature writing style of his.
The uniqueness of this story is the lady protagonist-Cecilia. Cecilia is not a normal, common run of the mill or typical female who would conform to all the absurdities she has to face in the city of Churches. There is a peculiar form of postmodern absurdity in this short story and Cecilia is not a woman who would take this quietly. She faces this absurd situation head on and challenges the ludicrous and nonsensical norms of the city and decides to break away from the obsessive conformity to an even more preposterous situation that she is placed into.
When she questions the absurd situation that seems to engulf the whole city, she is forced and blackmailed into conforming to the norms.
This is how a majority of women have been, are and will continue to be treated and be forced into somehow agreeing to the norms and not fighting for what they really believe in. This treatment has been a very effective technique of making women somehow conform and ‘remain in line’ as opposed to rebelling and exploring their true strengths.
Barthelme has a postmodern style of writing. There is deconstruction found abundantly in his works but somehow in this story all these aspects of his writing are present but in a calm manner till the end of the story where the situation explodes in the readers face, leaving the reader moved and slightly disturbed by the whole situation.
The next step that Mr. Philips (the person who introduces Cecilia to the city of Churches) after done with earlier antics her is bribing. He tries every move in order to bribe Cecilia to give into the conformity of the city and place herself into the corner the city had fixed for her, ignored to somehow ‘complete’ the city. But then this technique also falls flat and fails.
The next step that Mr. Philips employs is the last resort of a weak man against woman- violence. He tries to grab her arm and somehow force her into submission. This is the point in the story where the whole explosion of ideas takes place. Cecilia refuses out right to give in to any sort of conformity and lose her identity in the way. She even refuses to give in when violence is used against her.
When she refuses to settle down according to their ways and fit herself into the pre created and determined mold that the society has made for her, he tries blackmailing her, when that fails, he tries to bribe her and when even that fails he consorts to being violent to scare her into submitting to the larger will of the city or the society and conforming her to the fixed position that the society thought she was supposed to occupy. He grabs her arm and uses physical force just as a society tries to subdue any woman who questions the barriers that society puts on her and tries to walk out of the box that the society has placed to define her. This physicality of men in case of subjugating women can be seen everywhere.
Feminism deals with the political, social, sexual, physical and emotional rights of women. It also fights against the barriers that hinder a woman and do not allow her to explore herself fully and realize her potential.
Finally in the end Cecilia says a few words that shock Mr. Philips. She says that if she is forced into a situation she is not happy with, she will be forced to somehow conform to the style and fixed position in the city of churches , she will dream of ‘the secret’ and that ‘they will be sorry.’
The words were ‘Wait and see.’
Such ominous words ring in the ears of the reader. This leaves the reader wondering what secret could be so haunting in the city of the churches that if Cecilia dreams of it, it will be dangerous for the city itself.
If Mr. Philips represents the society and Cecilia represents the common woman, this ending is subtle yet powerful. What possibly could the secret be? Maybe it can be the strength of an empowered woman. It is true that a woman who realizes her potential can bring down any man or any patriarchal organization or society. A woman who dreams of equality and empowerment will not be stopped by a society that wants her to conform to absurd notions of what it means to be a woman.
Cecilia has proven to be a heroine in the true sense of the word. A heroine more strong than any other macho super hero out there because she is able to confront real life situations that numerous women face across the globe and is able to stand up to injustice and yet does not back down even though she is threatened and actual physical violence is used against her.
Thousands of women face the same situation every day and this culture will change only when the entire women stand up to threats just like Cecilia did. They need to stand up against oppression and ills in the society such as objectification and stereotyping of women. This story is an inspiration for women who want justice and equal opportunities in face of extreme opposition from the status quo men.
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