I just saw a classic opera (Orfeo ed Euridice, by Gluck) that reminded me of many, many romances I’ve read in which the female character—our heroine, mind you—is an irrational, demanding, needy person who spoils everything. In this case, Orpheus is so brokenhearted over the death of his beloved wife, Eurydice, that he braves hell itself to rescue her. The gods declare that he can take her back to the land of the living, but there’s a catch. He’s not allowed to look at her (which kind of makes it impossible to kiss her), and he’s not to explain anything. He promises. So fine, he goes down to hell and reunites with Eurydice without looking at her or telling her the deal. Then he tries to hurry her along the path home. But she balks. She wants him to look at her, to reassure her that her beauty, the reason he loved her before, is still intact. She also wants an explanation for his odd behavior. She wants his reassurance that the life to which she is returning will not be painful. Being kept in ignorance is painful. So is being rejected. Orpheus tries to get her to stop asking questions, and just trust him and move along the path out of hell. But instead, he finally gives in to her pleas and looks at Eurydice. And of course, then the deal is off. The woman, with her silly, emotional demands, destroys the man’s plan.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a version of that situation, especially in a historical romance. The hero is trying to master some precarious political situation, but the heroine whines, begs, and nags him into agreeing to some action that—however kindly her motives—tips the scales against him. Or there’s the sex thing. The hero has to leave now; the heroine, not aware of other concerns or not caring, seduces him, thus delaying him. The bad guys capture the castle. And the hero. Uh-oh. Complications ensue.
Many of these romances were written by women. We are so used to being outside the direct flow of the work—or the struggle—of the world that even in our own wish-fulfillment fiction, we often paint ourselves as screw-ups and spoilers. I believe that’s because until recently women were not dealt in on the major work of the world. A woman’s sphere was necessarily personal, and she was neither trained nor allowed to contemplate the wider results of her actions. Which is not to say that some women throughout history haven’t figured things out anyway. But still, the classical philosophers don’t include women in the mainstream of their thought. They posit or describe a world in which men make all the decisions and wander happily through groves talking about high-flown ideas, while women’s role is to support this vision as minor characters who are only slightly more important than children.
That’s the classical world to which the Orpheus and Eurydice story belongs. Orpheus loves Eurydice, but he’s the main actor in their story, and her role is only to obey. But art, for all its exaggerations, is more in tune with real life than philosophy is. So Eurydice doesn’t blindly obey. And Orpheus loves her enough to break his promise to the gods, and give in to her pleading and look at her. In fact, his love is so great that it impresses the gods, and they forgive him (and obviously, Eurydice, too), and let him take her back to the land of the living anyway. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told repeatedly by men, some of whom claim it’s not about men and women at all, but about the power of music (Orpheus is a musician) to move people.
How strange that men don’t want to admit that this story is about the power of love itself. A love so strong that responding to the beloved’s immediate needs becomes more important than any long-term plan. I guess one could say that love makes us all stupid, except that in most of these incarnations, the woman gets blamed for screwing up the deal. I don’t like the way that most of the time in literature women are portrayed as importunate fools, self-absorbed and vain, and incapable of seeing beyond their petty concerns. Except that love isn’t a petty concern. Eurydice doesn’t want to live again if she won’t have her husband’s love. And that’s why Orpheus turns and looks at her. Because he won’t deny her. So, yes, women ruin everything. We’ve got our own agenda and it’s not the same as that of men. But men don’t want to live without us.