Fay Weldon’s early collection Polaris and Other Stories both reflects and anticipates the concerns that engage her writing in its myriad permutations, before and since. By the time the collection was published, Weldon was a familiar female voice, in no small part because of her prolificacy (she had published nine novels and an earlier short story collection, not to mention the numerous television productions to her credit). The 12 “parables of modern life,” as the cover blurb describes the collection, offer a variety of ways in which Weldon’s skilled voice—ironic, sharp, unforgiving— narrates the center of human existence: love. The story “In the Great War” can be seen as a microcosm of her themes, characters, and strategies.
“In the Great War” introduces characters that are familiar inhabitants of Weldon landscapes: female protagonists whose husbands or significant others leave them or cheat on them because they, being women, are too independent or too dependent, thus foregrounding the impossibility of pleasing the fickle male; women who have no compunction about poaching other women’s spouses; mothers who resent/abandon their children; and children who are initially creatures of incredible selfishness but who mature by the end of the tale, ready, perhaps, to take on their own role as responsible adults and future parents. The male characters, objects of passion and obsession for the female protagonists, are conveyed in a manner to create confusion in the reader as to the source of such attraction, and, as characters, even those portrayed to be living the male ideal are much less interesting and dynamic than the women.
“In the Great War” chronicles the lives and loves of Patty, whose husband Arthur leaves her for a more feminine woman, and her 19-year-old daughter Enid, who makes being feminine her life’s goal and succeeds in enticing her formerly married professor to marry her. Patty is a woman “who was what she was” (129) and so is easily defeated by Helene, “the enemy at the gate with her slim legs and bedroom eyes” (129). Enid, Patty’s daughter, is irrevocably scarred by her father’s abandonment, blaming her mother on the one hand— “Do we have to eat this? No wonder Dad left home!”— but taking up “the armoury her mother never wore” on the other, in order to avenge them both (131). Arthur, Patty’s husband, is persuaded “without much difficulty . . . to leave Patty and Enid, give up his job, paint pictures for a living and think the world well lost for love” (130–131). Neither Walter Walther, Enid’s 48-year-old professor, nor his wife Roseanne, older than Walter by four years, “stand a chance against Enid” (133), just as her mother before her “didn’t stand a chance against Helene” (129). The light mocking voice of the omniscient narrator spares none of the characters, and while ostensibly sympathetic to their behavior, the narrator often critiques it. For example, the narrator tells us that Helene is cross with Enid for doing what she herself had done with Enid’s father—“She was an old retired warrior, sitting in a castle she’d won by force of arms, shaking her head at the shockingness of war” (135)— thus exposing the wicked naivete of both women.
The story utilizes Weldon’s typical narrative structure: short paragraphs created of brief and pointed sentences, serving to convey information that may often be quite devastating in a disarmingly humourous manner, a legacy from Weldon’s successful advertising days. The voice is familiar, even gossipy, in the manner of Victorian address to the “dear reader,” often punctuated with exclamation marks. For example, we are informed that Patty is taking estrogen and becoming more like Helene as a result, with a potted geranium on her windowsill: “A geranium! Patty, who could never see the point in potted plants!” (135). The juxtaposition of the geranium as an example of Patty’s newfound femininity with the estrogen as its source highlights Weldon’s acuity about life’s ironies. The implication is, of course, that she has been “improved” and that by becoming more “feminine” she has in fact become less bitter and kinder. Indeed, at Enid’s wedding she “actually saw the point of shaking [Arthur’s] hand and even laying her cheek against his, in affection and forgiveness” (136).
Accordingly, Enid marries Walter Walther, whose name is an example of Weldon’s bestowal of ridiculous names on her male comic heroes (think Bobbo in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil) so that even if they cease to behave in a manner worthy of scorn as a narrative progresses, the reader is always reminded of their initial preposterous state. (Walter’s name has the added weight of being a weapon, one favoured by James Bond, no less, thus foregrounding his role in the women’s hostilities.) Wedded bliss, however, does not last, despite Enid’s best efforts: “Her curtains were always fully lined, her armpits smooth and washed, never merely sprayed. Enid never let her weapons get rusty. She would do better, thank you, than Patty, or Helene, or Roseanne” (137). And yet, she does not. The failure of these concrete manifestations of the good wife reflect Weldon’s consistent engagement with the ways in which women measure their self-worth on the basis of male-defined criteria of what that worth entails. Thus, Enid’s desire to have a baby precipitates Walter’s ultimate betrayal. After Roseanne sends their daughters to live with Walter and Enid (another common antimaternal characteristic in Weldon’s writings, appearing prominently in another story in the collection, “Christmas Lists”), Walter abandons the pregnant Enid and returns to Roseanne. It seems that Enid is doomed to misery.
However, Weldon does offer a message of limited hope through sisterhood for such misguided women. The war ends when Enid fittingly gives birth to a daughter and rejoices, although the “birth of a girl was . . . cause for commiseration rather than rejoicing.” She “abandoned a battle which was really none of her making; she laid down her arms” (142) and embraces her mother, stepmother, and stepdaughters. She lives with her daughter and stepdaughters in a home with no men, returns to college, and succeeds in a new career. In the closing paragraph we are told she has become “something of a propagandist in the new cold war against men . . . walk[ing] around linked arm-in-arm with women” (143). What, after all, could be more natural than women linked? But Weldon does not offer this unity of females as an unambiguous solution to the hostilities and travails of women for and against the gender divide. In the story’s last lines she reminds us that however “treacherous” the old “male allies” had been, “[w]ho is to say what will happen next?” (143). Whenever Weldon has chosen to investigate that particular question, be it in Polaris or in her writings since, she has done it with an unfl inching eye for the truth of the way many women live their lives.
Weldon, Fay. Polaris and Other Stories. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.