Karen Joy Fowler's "The Elizabeth Complex"

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This story gives us Karen Joy Fowler at her finest and most daring. I've always been exhilarated by this author's efforts to tell the stories that traditional literary form effectively silences. Her method is usually elliptical, sly, and devious; the distinctive tone and style so uniquely hers charms readers into listening to these stories (which would be refused from the hands of more straightforward writers as being inherently polemical, shrill, or "politically correct"). "The Elizabeth Complex" partakes of that same, cunning voice, but its attack on the structures of oppression-- including their linguistic and literary forms-- is slashingly outright. "The Elizabeth Complex," in short, is a story with attitude. Feminist attitude.

And yet, I must confess that it took me some time to "get it." (This is often the case for me when reading Fowler's fiction.) At the moment of reading, the story (which folds, not emulsifies, the stories of several historical Elizabeths into an entertaining, seamed complex) struck me as whimsical and amusing-- a graceful tour de force, I first thought (all too stupidly). I imagined I was meant, simply, to identify all the historical Elizabeths represented in the story. A few nights after reading it, though, the other shoe dropped. It was the middle of the night, and I was lying in bed, minding my own business, when there rose before my eyes an image of the author furiously wielding an enormous, heavy sword against a large, monstrous apparition. The combat looked playful and light and all bravado, but the author's sword was razor sharp, bold and deadly. I realized she was out for blood-- an essential point I'd missed in my reading. I'd allowed the apparent playfulness of the combat to mislead me. In fact, the playfulness of her style is precisely what allows the author to merge several distinct stories into an abstraction that is, yes, "complex," rather than simple. (The title, I believe, is a triple pun.) Because it is that sly, cunning, amused voice itself that takes on so many different particular fathers (to an effect that none of the Elizabeths, singly, could ever possibly accomplish), the author is able to launch an all-out attack on the Fathers-- who, taken collectively, are an abstraction of a single, constant, relatively unchanging function that oppresses the many distinct Elizabeths who themselves collectively add up to a "complex," rather than a function. And so,

He would show the women these laws in his books. He would show Elizabeth. She would make a little mark with her fingernail in the margin beside them. Some night when he was asleep, some night when she had more courage than she had ever had before, she would slip into the library and cut the laws she had marked out of the books. Then the women would stop weeping and her father would be able to do as he liked.

Though each faces the same, eternally recurring issue, the Elizabeths are all different. The fathers themselves, though also different, plug into the same function, again and again and again over the centuries, regardless of the differences in their intentions, regardless of their sentiments for their daughters. And isn't this really how "difference" works across certain shared oppressions? In the case presented in this story, the oppression is shared over centuries by European and American women however differently it is experienced in the details of their personal lives and their class, religious, and sexual distinctiveness.

Whether individually or as a complex, none of the Elizabeths can "slip into the library and cut the laws she had marked out of the book" to any effect on her own life. It is Fowler's voice, though, that can metaphorically take a razor to the Fathers' Law and smile and charm and please us with its grace as it does so. It is Fowler who sees the "complex" and identifies the function that assimilates the fathers into Fathers.

The wit in this story is as cutting as Joanna Russ's in The Female Man and as graceful as that in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. It's a feminist classic.

Seattle
September, 1996
©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp

"The Elizabeth Complex" first appeared in Crank! #6. It has since been reprinted in Karen Joy Fowler's collection, Black Glass (Henry Holt, February, 1998).

Publication Date: 
1996