Feminist/Queer Theory

Critique de la Vie Quotidienne: Feminism and How it Relates

Annie Yost

In the latter half of the twentieth century, men and women were starting to part ways when it came to understanding each other and working in activist movements together. One author very much captured the separation between men and women extremely well in a story that he wrote. This author was Donald Barthelme in his short story “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne.” There was an article written in 2017, specifically on separatism by Alban Jacquemart called “Women-Only and Mixed Groups in the French Feminist Movements of the 1970s: A Re-evaluation”, while another article focused on the difference in the understanding of happiness based on genders by Rémy Pawin called “The Gender of Happiness (France 1945 – 1970s)”, written in 2014. In order to understand how men and women were parting, both Pawin and Jacquemart had to look back at the feminist movements in France. Separatism was not completely understood during this time; however, it was a particularly important process during the feminist movements in France. Separatism helped women find peace and happiness in their lives, where they used to be around men nearly every moment of their waking life.

As first shown by Barthelme in his piece “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” women and men were not exactly the type to get along. His writing also showed that some women do not show the extent of what they are feeling during the moment that something is happening. For example, the wife of the story, Wanda, did not show just how upset she was with her husband until the end of the story when she drew a gun on him; “‘Health to the dead!’ she proposed, meanwhile waving the horse pistol in the air in an agitated manner. I drank that health, but with misgivings, because who was she talking about? ‘The sacred dead,’ she said with relish. ‘The well-beloved, the well-esteemed, the well-remembered, the well-ventilated.’ She attempted to ventilate me then, with the horse pistol” (Barthelme). The other time she expressed just how upset she was with her husband was when she poured their dinner on the floor: “She . . . motors out of the room and into the kitchen, where she throws the dinner on the floor, so that when you enter the kitchen to get some more ice you begin skidding and skating . . .” (Barthelme). The audience can, however, interpret Wanda’s irate attitude with her husband by the way she tends to stare out the window in their house instead of walking about and playing with the child. Barthelme shows the concept of separatism in the way that Wanda and her husband get a divorce.

As their divorce is in the beginning stages, Wanda and her husband do not completely separate from each other as they continue to drink together. It is only after one time drinking when Wanda has the intention of shooting her ex-husband that they never see each other again and are truly separated. This gradual separation between Wanda and her husband is remarkably similar to the gradual separation between activist groups that include men and those that do not. Jacquemart spends the entirety of his article explaining that “separatism was a form of feminist practice that spread only gradually, and not without conflict” (Jacquemart 2).  Separatism became a practice in the feminist movements because “‘like all oppressed groups, it was up to [them] to take charge of [their] own liberation’” (Jacquemart 3). It was not accepted immediately, as many men tried to fight the idea that women should be fighting for their rights on their own. Men tried to find ways to involved in things and places that women did not want to them to be involved in.

In Barthelme’s short story, Wanda did not think that her husband was welcome in their home. This was shown in multiple ways, the first way was Wanda throwing their dinner on the floor, the other way it shown that the husband was not welcome in the house was in his conversation with his child. The husband had seen that his child’s face was dirty and told the child to clean it up, the child however argued with his father, and eventually told him that he and his friends has made death masks out of dough. When the father asked the child where he was going to put the masks, the child said the wall. To which the father responded: “‘Yes, yes, hang them on the wall, why not?’ I said. ‘Imitations of mortality,’ the child said, with a sly look. ‘Why the look?’ I asked. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ ‘Ho ho,’ the child said, sniggering – a palpable snigger. ‘Why the snigger?’ I asked, for the look in combination with the snigger had struck fear into my heart, a place where no more fear was needed. ‘You’ll find out,’ the child said . . . ‘I’ll find out!’ I exclaimed. ‘What does that mean, I’ll find out?’ ‘You’ll be sorry,’ the child said . . . ‘Sorry!’ I cried, ‘I’ve been sorry all my life!’ ‘Not without reason,’ the child said, a wise look replacing the piteous look” (Barthelme). All of this makes the audience assume that Wanda had spoken badly about her husband in front of the child, and the child knew what Wanda was planning. Men consistently attempted to involve themselves in meetings where women had decided that they were no longer welcome.

The women were trying to part ways with men because most of them had dealt with either sexism during feminist movements or men that were extreme leftists. The men of that were far leftists did not genuinely care about the feminist movement, but they cared about being the face of any activist movement. The women found that if they had any chance of truly taking part in this movement that they needed to make sure they would not have direct contact with those men.

A similar aspect is shown in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” by Wanda. It was only after getting divorced from her husband that Wanda went to college, which shows that she needed separated from him in order to attend college. Some of the women even found it necessary to be separated from men from the beginning, “That men’s exclusion was a given for some feminists is also suggested by Liliane Kandel, who presents this mode of action as taking shape spontaneously from the beginning” (Jacquemart 4). However, going from men and women working together, to women working by themselves was a true struggle for not only men but also women.  Jacquemart says that “feminist themselves,” [needed] “justification to be convinced that this mode of action was legitimate” (Jacquemart 5). The struggle of making women-only groups continued for quite a while, and men were included in smaller ways than they were previously. Men could no longer attend large meetings or women’s groups. In rallies they were only permitted to be at the end section of the procession. The other way that men and women started to separate, was in their basic understanding of happiness.

During the feminist movements in France, women started to not be as satisfied by their family life as much as they used to. As women ‘“the construction of individuality has depended first and foremost on the search for happiness’” (Pawin 4) meaning women had to find out what made them happy before they could find out who they are in their own minds. On the other hand, it was not ideal that a man would have to find his happiness before knowing who he is; in and of himself. It was not set up for men to need to understand what makes them happy before finding a job, or being successful in certain aspects of their lives. After the feminist movements started and succeeded in winning females jobs, many women said that they were happy to have a job and that working around a house – by themselves nonetheless – was suppressing their happiness. Many women felt that even though they might always be hurrying, and might have wanted “a job that paid better” (Pawin 13) they were still happy working in that job because they were not at home.

This same idea was shown at the end of Barthelme’s “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” when Wanda’s ex-husband shares that he believes Wanda is now happy without him or their child. Wanda had moved to another city to stay away from her ex-husband and get the distance she needed so that she could be healthy in her own mind. The story also says that she is happy in her study of Marxist sociology. This story shows that while married and staying at home with her husband and child, Wanda was not happy. Once Wanda was relieved of staying with them she was finally happy in her own life. This is extremely similar to how Pawin shows that many women were happy once they were no longer staying at home all the time.

Pawin says that with the change that came about during the feminist movements in France, women had to have jobs in order to be happy. He uses evidence from studies done in the past. For example, “In response to the question about job satisfaction, one woman starts by saying, ‘Yes, I quite like working, I wouldn’t want to be home all day,’ before hastily adding, ‘although money is the main reason I work of course’” (Pawin 13), in these studies many women said that they prefer to work at a job outside of their house, rather than do work around their houses. On the other side of this argument, some people say that feminists have made it difficult for many women to continue to be housewives, or made them feel guilty for staying at home. Pawin disagrees with this and says, “Contrary to those reactionary thinkers who say that feminists have made housewives feel guilty and that women have been ‘victims of feminism,’ this survey revealed that, on the contrary, the feminist discourse might brighten the daily lives of some women who used to see their work as a curse” (Pawin 14). This is also shown in Barthelme’s character Wanda, in how she finds happiness when she is not staying at home and taking care of her child.

When Wanda was staying at home her husband would have guests over, with whom she wanted to talk to, but she was banished to the kitchen by her husband instead. Her husband tried to argue that he did not know she didn’t like the kitchen, they continued to argue over this topic. “‘Health to abandoned wives!’ she said. ‘Well now,’ I said. ‘Abandoned, that’s a little strong.’ ‘Pushed out, jettisoned, abjured, thrown away,’ she said. ‘I remember,’ I said, ‘a degree of mutuality, in our parting.’ ‘And when guests came,’ she said, ‘you always made me sit in the kitchen.’ ‘I thought you liked it in the kitchen,’ I said. ‘You were forever telling me to get out of the bloody kitchen.’ . . . ‘And when we were invited to the Argentine Embassy,’ she said, ‘you made me drive the car in a chauffer’s cap, and park the car, and stand outside while you chatted up the Ambassador.’ ‘You know no Spanish,’ I pointed out.” (Barthelme). This section of the short story shows how men and women did not understand each other during this time.

Many men found it hard to understand why women wanted them excluded from their protests. Now it can be said that perhaps women did not want men included because their happiness did not rely on the men, but instead relied on their ability to leave their houses to go to work. Many people in general did not understand for a long time why separatism was important for women during the French feminist movements. Separatism was important for these women because without being separated these women would not have been able to find the happiness of leaving their homes to do work or go to school. Just as Wanda did not find happiness while she was married to her husband. She only found happiness when she was separated from him. It is entirely possible that these women could have never experienced being able to have a job separate from their husbands.

Works Cited

Barthelme, Donald. “Critique De La Vie Quotidienne.” Jessamyn.com: Donald Barthelme: Critique De La Vie Quotidienne, http://jessamyn.com/barth/critique.html.

Jacquemart, Alban, et al. “Women-Only and Mixed Groups in the French Feminist Movements of the 1970s: A Re-Evaluation.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 46, 2017, pp. 219–44. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26795734. Accessed 2 Dec. 2023.

Pawin, Rémy, and Regan Kramer. “The Gender of Happiness (France, 1945-1970s).” Clio (English Edition), no. 39, 2014, pp. 253–69. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26238737. Accessed 2 Dec. 2023.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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