Analysis of A Sorrowful Woman by Gail Godwin

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In the story "A Sorrowful Woman,"Gail Godwin introduces us to a family of three; a mother, her husband and her child. The young wife is depressed by the fact that she is overwhelmed with taking care of her husband and child and this makes her feel ill whenever her son and husband are in sight. She constantly withdraws from her family where she gradually shuts them from her life, taking in other roles such as brushing her hair on the window each day and communicating with her family through notes that she slides under the door of her bedroom. Godwin’s protagonist in the story seems dissatisfied with her role in life and this makes her turn to other roles, where eventually none seems to satisfy her either. The dissatisfaction of the woman’s life ultimately results in her death. In the story, Godwin borrows a lot of imagery and language of classic fairy tales as such this essay seeks to compare the text with fairy tales stories and what these allusions to fairy tales suggest about a modern nuclear family.

 Language and Imagery of Fairytales

            In the story "A Sorrowful Woman,"the language and imagery used are like that of a fairy tale to relay the story in an ironic fable. The fairy tale motif generally affects the way Godwin intends to use descriptive details in the choices of language. Additionally, he uses the language and imagery like that of a fairy tale to capture the mind of the reader due to the mythic qualities that are often associated with fairy tales. At the onset of the story, the reader is introduced to a world with no elaborate and specific time as an illusion of a happy story. “Once upon a time there was a wife and a mother one too many times” (1). This introduces the reader to the usual nuclear family, however, the language used, Godwin's idea becomes clear.  Most of this languages and imagery that Godwin utilizes which are common in fairy tales, add to the irony of the situation which the protagonist faces. Additionally, the language and imagery used by the author imply a universal representation of a modern day nuclear family and the challenges the “woman” encounters. The characters in the story do not have names and therefore the reader is immersed in the author's terse style to try and empathize with most situations facing small nuclear families across the world. Additionally, the time and locale of the story remain undisclosed throughout the story just like in most fairy tales to have a common yet universal representation in the society.

In most fairy tales, the prince takes on the role of a subtle yet gentle character who is supposed to save the princess. The husband is somehow compared to a prince as she takes on the wrath, pain, and sickness of the sorrowful woman without complaining or reacting to it. In the story, however, the husband is unable to save his ailing wife. Other characters in the story such as the child and the young girl hired to take care of the girl when the mother is depressed are almost described as perfect in nature and this can only be compared to most fairy tales as they possess unreal qualities. The child is portrayed by Godwin as being “tender and golden tree” and the young girl taking care of the child is portrayed as perfect (Godwin 1). They are intentionally depicted as unreal characters to represent the types of people in the real world and the real people themselves just like in a fairy tale. The author uses the imagery of a fairy tale to illustrate an almost perfect world where everything seems to work in order without the mother’s interference setting up a model of an almost perfect family. “The girl brought in the child twice a day, once in the later afternoon when he would tell of his day. Often now, the man took his wife to dinner and made a courtship ceremony out of it” (2). However, the usual “happily ever after” does not seem to eventually happen as the woman dies.

What the Allusions to Fairy Tales Suggest?

In the modern-day society, a nuclear family comprising of a husband, wife and a child is a fundamental institution of crucial importance. In such a family, each member has a role for it to function efficiently. If one of the family members does not perform his or her role in the family, the fundamental core of the family is distorted leading to negative consequences. Godwin illustrates the story with an ironic bleak tone that reveals the outcome of a sorrowful wife in a nuclear family. The allusions to the fairy tale suggest the harsh realities of a wife and a mother in a nuclear family. For one, the responsibility of raising a child can necessitate a woman to achieve more personal and social adjustments to be able to balance her own life as well as the responsibility of taking care of a child. Just like in the story, the woman seems overwhelmed with the responsibilities at hand and every day must take her “sleeping draught and cognac” so that she is able to sleep (2).

            Secondly, the unique life situation of a mother and a wife at the same time poses several challenges in a nuclear family. Since the role is a routine and therefore needs to be performed each day, the duties and responsibility of a wife yet at the same time a mother can become overwhelming.

…putting the warm dishes away in the cupboard, she turned and saw the child eye approving her movement. In the next room was the man dozing off after a good supper. She began yelping without tears, retching in between (1).

With this oblique tone that Godwin uses we are taken to a world where the responsibilities of both a wife and a mother become emotionally draining and eventually leading to grief and sorrow. Godwin shows a perfect example of how this role becomes challenging using a bleak tone and outcome. The woman is obligated to take care of her husband and her child but becomes overwhelmed by her chores and duties that makes her to eventually experience a nervous breakdown.


            In conclusion, when the role of a wife and a mother at the same time starts becoming a routine, one often becomes emotionally drained and does not seem to get satisfied with it. In the story, the woman satiates herself into finding other roles to counter her routine life by brushing her hair in the sun and writing poems. However, eventually, she fails to get the satisfaction she desires and at the end, she dies. 

Works Cited

Godwin, Gail. A Sorrowful Woman. New York: Daid Wheeler, 2000.

December 12, 2023


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