This is an adapted version of a paper that I wrote for a class called Modern Jewish Literature.
Women’s representation in the media is an issue that cuts across genre lines, ranging from Ivy League debates over Lady Macbeth’s feminist merits to fan complaints on Tumblr over how female characters are portrayed in Doctor Who. Women in literature are often relegated to the role of helper, present only to facilitate male characters’ development and push forward the plot. Although the women in Bernard Malamud’s “Lady of the Lake” (1958) and Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America” (1969) do fall into this trope, it is not their primary role in the stories. Isabella and Hannah are, respectively, characters with agency and independence, serving as a contrast for the women to whom they allude.
This agency can easily be seen in “Lady of the Lake.” Although it abysmally fails the Bechdel test by featuring only one female character by name, Isabella is a strong character who does not rely on the direction of the men on her life. On the contrary, she holds the power in her family: she comes up with the idea that they should pretend they are the wealthy del Dongos, and says that her father listened to her advice in this regard. This role reversal is particularly poignant when the story’s publication date of 1958 is taken into account, as this was at the height of Western media’s aggressive push of the ideal family as a patriarchal unit with a father at its head.
As a consequence of this idealized family, the 1950s was an era when women were pressured to marry (and marry young), as their only road to fulfillment was a husband, children, and housewifery. Despite this societal pressure, Isabella doesn’t let Henry – who is perceived as a rich American able to give her a new start in the States – come in and sweep her off her feet. She exercises agency in her choice to reject Henry’s advances because of her refusal to compromise on her standards (i.e. Judaism) for potential mates.
Hannah in Ozick’s “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America” also exercises her right to say no to a man through her refusal to translate the Yiddish poet Edelshtein’s poems. Although such a response was more common in 1968, when interest in feminism and women’s equality was renewed, women were still only experimenting with their newfound freedom. Edelshtein tries to take away Hannah’s fledgling agency by infantilizing her: in the text, he refers to her as a child and calls her meydeleh, which literally means girl, even though she is in her 20s. He then goes on to strike her when she refuses to translate him, an attempt to assert masculine dominance over her. However, Hannah will not let Edelshtein and his old world understandings of gender relations prevail. She does not give in to his demands to translate him: she yells at him when he yells at her and defiantly does not touch her face in the aftermath of the strike, resolutely standing her ground.
Hannah is not the only woman who exercises agency in her decision not to translate Edelshtein; she is in the same boat as the translator identified as the spinster hack. Although the spinster translator candidly says that she will not translate Edelshtein because it is too much effort for too little money, Hannah does not even bother to give a reason for her refusal until prompted. After Edelshtein strikes her, she refuses to translate him even more strongly, outright telling him to die and repeating no several times.
Although Isabella and Hannah exert agency over their lives and refuse to defer to the men around them, the women to whom they serve as allusions are not as feminist. There is no doubt that Isabella is the lady of the lake referenced by the title of the story, as the reader first meets her rising out of the lake. Although the Arthurian Lady of the Lake was a crucial part of many legends, her only reason for existence was to move the androcentric plot along and thereby facilitate men’s development. Hannah’s biblical counterpart served a similar purpose, as she is only mentioned in Tanakh in relation to her husband and son; in the text, her import is solely derived from her motherhood of Samuel the Prophet.
Isabella and Hannah rebel against these predetermined roles, refusing to actively facilitate the lives of the men around them. Although it is undeniable that they serve as integral parts of Henry’s and Edelshtein’s respective character developments, Isabella and Hannah have function beyond this role; the influence they have on men in the story is simply by consequence of the decisions they make for their own benefits.
This feminist reading of Isabella is complicated by Malamud’s treatment of Isabella’s body, however. The story exoticizes and thereby eroticizes her by describing her as possessing a “beauty which holds the mark of history, the beauty of a people and civilization.” Isabella is highly sexualized when the reader first meets her as “a girl in a white bathing suit…[with] wet skin glistening.” Malamud reduces her to body parts: in addition to having a face, eyes, brows, nose, lips, and chin that are “suffused with the loveliness of youth,” she is described as “queenly high-assed” and with a “high-arched breast,” corresponding descriptions of which are absent in regard to Henry, since the reader only hears about his hair, eyes, height, and his “arms and legs and his stomach.”
Overall, Isabella is little more than a sex object to Henry, a foreign body to be conquered. He becomes interested in her based only off of their one short encounter by the lake, where a large part of the narration is dedicated to describing her physical form, indicating that his attraction is mostly sexual. Although it could be argued that his decision to stay with her after he learns that she is not wealthy is a sign of true love, when she disappears, he is still only interested in her physical form, as he “grope[s] for her breasts.” Although he objectifies her, she does not allow herself to be reduced to a body; when she exposes herself, she chooses how and when, making it a feminist act that is for her own benefit (to reveal her Jewish identity) rather than for Henry’s sexual fulfillment.
Both “The Lady of the Lake” and “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America” give their female characters independence. Malamud’s Isabella challenges patriarchal norms within the family and exerts agency over her choice of life partner, two highly subversive acts for a woman of the 1950s. Ozick has Hannah engage in similarly feminist behaviors when she refuses to translate Edelshtein, originally out of lack of interest in his work and later on as a result of his infantilizing and abusive language and actions. Isabella and Hannah have their own interests in mind. Any development they help facilitate in male characters is coincidental and tangential to their own, in stark contrast to the literary Lady of the Lake and biblical Hannah they reference. Although Henry’s primary interest in Isabella is physical, she does not allow herself to be wholly objectified. These two women transcend the female character trope of helper, serving as important characters in their own right and creating interesting feminist implications for readers.