Dreams of freedom

Issue 4/1992 | Archives online, Authors

Maria Jotuni‘s first short stories appeared at the beginning of the century, as the successful campaign for women’s suffrage was being waged in Finland. Jotuni (1880–1943) was no suffragette, however, although both her short stories and her plays subject women’s lives, and, in particular, women’s grasp on their own lives, to constant examination.

In Jotuni’s work, women live under a triple burden: they seek their identities in relation to men, conventional mores and their own dreams. These relations are not linear, but often displaced, or inverted, as is demonstrated by the names of two of her plays: Miehen kylkiluu – ‘The rib of man’ – and Tohvelisankarin rouva – ‘The wife of a henpecked husband’.

For Jotuni’s women, men are not an enigma, indeed the opposite. Men are unsurprising, easily tired, shortsighted; they are strong adversaries in the struggle for power. Her late work has surprising depictions of the strength of violence and women’s incapacity to oppose it. The climaxes of Jotuni’s work occur in the years after 1910 and in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The short story collection Kun on tunteet (‘When you have feelings’, 1913) contains many variations on women’s journey to self-knowledge and recognition of their own value-systems. A home does not become a home simply because one lives with someone, even if material matters are in order and the wardrobe is full of skirts and jackets.

Often Jotuni’s female characters are in alliance with other women, and in such cases social differences are unimportant. The lives of the rich are no happier than those of the poor, life runs smoothly, or fails to, irrespective of whether one dresses in wool or cotton. Jotuni often describes women who are forced to live off men, but instead of waving a war-flag, she makes her points through fine comic emphasis. Women have their own ways, their ancient cunning and wisdom. It is not worth arguing if one can live in harmony: one has taken the decisive step in walking up the aisle, and nobody, neither man nor woman, gets anything for free In Jotuni’s work, women realize sooner or later what is their own and what is foreign to them, and the apprenticeship in the art of living that results gives rise to both comic and tragic situations.

A monologue may be dialectical in the sense approved by Bakhtin, as in the short story ‘Hilda Husso’, in which the reader hears the voice of only one of the partners in a telephone conversation; the responses are marked only by a series of dashes.

Instead of stating her position unequivocally, Jotuni shows alternative choices, often in the personae of two women. Friendship is solidarity between women, ‘a man makes a poor friend’, as the main character says in the play Kultainen vasikka (‘The golden calf’). Man is a means to the satisfaction of woman’s thirst for life because woman has to consent to financial dependence, but Jotuni is no stranger to woman’s subconscious desire to fulfil her biological existence in motherhood.

There is something almost biological in the artist’s role, too, although Jotuni seldom points up motherhood and artistic creativity as painfully as in a short story from her first collection, Hämärässä (‘In the twilight’). Here the life of the artist is seen as desire, renunciation, homelessness, a romantic feeling of solitude struggling from the depths of the heart. Giving up children is part of a severe training in life, art a substitute for what has been left unlived.

The theme of children can also ring out tuneful and conciliatory as an old music box. A little genre piece, ‘Elämän sisältö’ (‘The meaning of life’), tells of two spinster sisters and their maid, like them already middle-aged, who meets the man of her life, an alcoholic bricklayer, and has a child with him. The fragile world of Katherine Mansfield’s novels echoes in this depiction of humble aging women. With gentle irony, Jotuni shows their social pride and their adjustment to the new situation, in which it is necessary to dare and to trust. And when the child is eventually born, the solidarity of the experience is expressed in the carefully chosen words: ‘for to them had come a wondrous joy, that to them was born a small, living child’.

In their ordinary lives, Jotuni’s women show an extraordinary ability to grasp the importance of coincidence and turn it to their advantage. But the opposite of coincidence is destiny, a strange and uncontrollable force which only the woman, in her thoughts and feelings, can recognise. It forms the base for a double life in which a carefully guarded inner reality encounters the external appearances kept up for the sake of others.

Marks of destiny include dreams and oblivion, enchantment, but also the bankruptcy of excessive desires. When exterior reality disappoints, the ensuing catastrophe may be expressed in an all-embracing anger, as in Tohvelisankarin rouva, in which Jotuni’s comic depiction of women approaches the cynical pessimism of Pirandello or Anouilh. In general, however, mistakes are not revealed, and life is made to look smooth and secure from the outside. Happiness cannot be bought, but love is often all a woman has to trade. Weil invested, the result can be so rich and opulent that only small nuances in the narrator’s voice break the illusions. To be a wife, that is a real, fine way of earning a living, the best on offer’, says ‘Onnellinen Heliina’ – ‘Happy Heliina’ – after her ordeals. Even after a wrong choice, one can live safely in a world of learned values, with pursed lips, and hands holding tightly on to one’s possessions.

‘The greatest of these is love.’ Therefore we do not squander it on our everyday transactions.
(From Vaeltaja, ‘The wanderer’, 1933)

I believe that in her depictions of women’s double lives Jotuni has, perhaps unconsciously, touched on a general difficulty in describing women in literature. In ordinary life women are defined, and often define themselves, through men, as wives, servants, chattels, representations of men’s desire to own and to exploit. Seen in a comic light, women without men would have no one to be good to or to forgive.

Many women overestimate their unimportance and derive some satisfaction from their humiliation. A different kind of womanhood, built on freedom, is possible only as a dream or vision, on the threshold of death or paradise. Stories are born that cannot be told; one can only report that they exist. Realist dialogue is not sufficient.

Jotuni’s late, massive novel, Huojuva talo (‘The shaking house’, published posthumously in 1963), follows its own way into myth and the depiction of evil. Here, speech is not innocent or in an organic relationship with reality; the relation between expression and content reflects life as a text that not one of the characters can read correctly. In reading this depiction, which out-Strindbergs Strindberg, of a marriage hell, it is interesting to remember that Jotuni herself sketched her double-life portrait at its clearest in an early short story, ‘Kaksoiskasvettuma’ (‘Double excrescence’), written in 1909 and dedicated to Strindberg. It appeared in the same volume as ‘Untako lienee’ (‘As in a dream’) and ‘Hilda Husso’, at its heart the sentiment: ‘Only she who is able to hate is able to love.’

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