Janet Fitch’s novel White Oleander depicts a bleak existence for women as individuals in the 21st century. The book focuses on the relationships and lessons learned from the surrogate mothers that Astrid encounters throughout her childhood. The one factor that ties them all together, however, is the identical power play between the mothers and the men in their lives. Fitch suggests that it is a man’s world, the women either play by their rules or they suffer for breaking them. However, rather than accepting their fate, Fitch evokes a sense of rebellion by the implicit homosocial and perhaps even homosexual relationships developed between her female characters, showing that women do not have to conform to the expectations of society, and that they are in fact capable of progressing without the aid of men.
The first impression Fitch creates of Ingrid is of a beautiful but fierce woman, with Astrid even referring to her as a, ‘Valkyrie, the stainless warrior,’ (67) indicating the image of brutal female power Ingrid shrouds herself in. Just as the Valkyries had a sense of authority and power about them, so too does Ingrid. She decides who to make love to and her lovers have to adhere to her rules. However, this power Ingrid revels in is a sham. Just as the Valkyries are in fact the servants and mead bearers of the glorious dead - who incidentally are always male - so too is Ingrid the subject of a male dominated society. Barry decides that he wants her and although Ingrid puts up the semblance of a fight, Barry eventually gets what he wants and Ingrid does indeed become his. Astrid’s observation that, ‘it was as if she’d won a contest’ (22) highlights the fact that Ingrid has bowed down to the dominance of the man and been made to feel important solely in relation to him. Her facade of power is stripped from her as she becomes the devoted servant, effectively serving his mead and seeing to his every whim.
Claire is presented as the polar opposite to Ingrid and the animosity that Ingrid feels for Claire is made evident when she tells Astrid, ‘I’d rather see you in the worst kind of foster hell than with a woman like that.’ (225) However, this hatred is probably because Ingrid can identify her own hidden weakness within Claire, the subservience to the men in their lives. Claire repeatedly faces rejection from the men in Hollywood and so constantly seeks to please the only other man in her life, her husband. Her complete devotion to him however, leaves her powerless and unable to define herself without him. After Ingrid confirms her fears, Claire begins to contemplate her death as can be seen in the episode where she pretends to be, ‘a jewelled corpse in her pink lingerie’ (228) and her ultimate suicide after he finally leaves her. Without a man in her life, Claire is nothing.
It is important to note that this lack of purpose in life without men is the very feature which leads Ingrid to commit murder. After Barry moves on from the relationship, Ingrid, once more feeling insignificant as a single woman, decides to rebel against ever allowing herself to be taken advantage of by a man again. Determined to no longer be thought of as the victim, Ingrid poisons Barry and becomes the dominant party. Arguably, despite the intention of the crime, it is possible that Ingrid viewed it as almost a kamikaze mission; she would undoubtedly be found guilty of the crime and thus her life would be wasted away in the legal system however, she felt that the cost was worth her liberty. Effectively she has found herself in a position where society will force her to waste away her life, because without a man her life is meaningless.
Olivia’s role as a prostitute is perhaps the most obvious indication of the dependency of women on men; without men, she literally would not be able to survive. Unlike Ingrid and Claire however, she understands that men will use women and so decides to make a profit from it, allowing her to enjoy the finer material things in life. Her declaration of love being like, ‘A big headline and a very dull story’ (128) is clearly an attempt to distance herself from ever becoming emotionally entangled with her clients however, Fitch implies that instead of finding harmony with the men in her life, it is her bond with Astrid that will bring her more emotional fulfilment in the long run. Their relationship teeters on the edge of close friendship and sexual intimacy but the two of them never actually engage in any sexual activity. Claire treats Astrid as one of her clients yet trades with her in emotional connection rather than sex. The scene in which she dances with Astrid, ‘like waves on Copacabana’ (148) and Astrid ‘imagines [Olivia] was the man,’ (148) clearly carries with it the connotation of sexual passion however, the pair never breach the divide between friends and lovers, instead developing a bond similar to that of sisters.
This representation of the intimacy between women is carried on throughout Astrid’s relations with both Ingrid and Claire. Although she never engages in sexual activity with either of them, the depth of her relationships with the two women is portrayed as far more important than that of the physically intimate heterosexual relationships she becomes involved with. When one considers the moment in which Claire kisses Astrid on the lips, her mouth tasting like, ‘iced coffee and cardamom’ (231) and Astrid’s declaration that she, ‘would have let her do anything,’ (231) one is struck by the devotion Astrid has for her foster mother. In comparison, her escapades with the men in which she is made to feel like, ‘a supplicant, like a sinner’ (140) and told by Ray, ‘Don’t say anything,’ (88) after she has declared her love for him comes across as rather emotionless. Fitch makes it clear that the interplay between the sexes is controlled by very different motives. Between a man and woman, the sexual aspect of the relationship is shown to be yet another way for men to use and dominate women, satiating their urges and removing the emotion from the act. On the other hand, the woman-to-woman relationships that Fitch constructs display that emotional connection is at the forefront of all interactions. The women are able to find in each other the emotional fulfilment that is not possible in a relationship with a man, hence why many of the female characters develop some form of homosocial bond either with Astrid, or in the case of Ingrid, with her cellmate.
In introducing this homosocial aspect to her work, Fitch is effectively challenging contemporary society’s expectations of women. In a novel which is clearly targeted at women, Fitch illustrates that although women may not yet have achieved equality with men, they are capable of finding in each other the strength to progress. The cases of Ingrid, Claire and Olivia are depicted as very similar; all have suffered at the hands of men and yet they are all presented as very different characters, incompatible characters in the case of Claire and Ingrid. However, it seems that Fitch’s intention was to show that, in spite of the many superficial differences between women, their life experiences are very similar and as such the bond of sisterhood should triumph over the problems they have with one another, thus heralding a stronger feminist movement.
Fitch, Janet. White Oleander. London: Virago Press, 2000. Print.