What is a Human Woman? – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

As Elizabethan literary theorist Sir Philip Sidney claims in his 16th century work titled The Defence of Poesie, the purpose of poetry, later extended to encompass all literary genres, is to simultaneously teach and delight the reader. Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine fits neatly into this category, since it teaches us a valuable lesson about ourselves as humans in general, ourselves as women in particular, and about the effect our words and actions have on others, while delighting us with heartbreakingly huggable characters and situations that make one laugh heartily while turning the pages of this truly unputdownable book. 

From the very beginning of the novel, Honeyman’s protagonist, Eleanor Oliphant struggles with the socially predefined concept of modern femininity and what it means to be a woman, or, more precisely, to be perceived as a woman in our contemporary day and age. She seeks guidance from magazines which offer her recipes about clothes, shoes, and makeup necessary to ‘disappear into everywoman acceptability,’ so that she wouldn’t get stared at and to accomplish her ultimate goal: ‘successful camouflage as a human woman.’ (p. 30)

She finds the results of her assimilation endeavours quite paradoxical: 

‘I’d made my legs black, and my hair blonde. I’d lengthened and darkened my eyelashes, dusted a flush of pink onto my cheeks and painted my lips a shade of dark red which was rarely found in nature. I should, by rights, look less like a human woman than I’d ever done, and yet it seemed that this was the most acceptable, the most appropriate appearance that I’d ever made before the world. It was puzzling.’ (230)

The further away she removes herself from her natural appearance, the more socially acceptable she seems to become. However, despite the humour that radiates from Eleanor Oliphant’s observations, her social commentary reveals a harsh truth about the influence exercised by the media and the society upon women, while simultaneously questioning the Double Standard: 

‘Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?
These were, of course, rhetorical questions.’ (p. 85)

Honeyman manages to transmit her message while successfully avoiding pathos, which is truly refreshing. At some point, her protagonist does stumble, fall, and sink low, but she is never pathetic. With a little help, she pulls herself up, puts herself together, reassesses her priorities, and leads to an ending that radiates with hope. 

© 2019 Erna Grcic



Categories: Book Review, Literary Criticism, Literary Critique, literature, novels

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