Friday, February 25, 2011

Faith and Fiction Round Table: Certain Women

This is my first Faith and Fiction Round Table discussion and, honestly, I'm a little bit nervous.  I hope I can do the Round Table justice.  Here goes...

Certain Women by Madeleine L'Engle tells the story of David, a famous actor, whose life has mirrored that of the biblical King David.  He has had eight wives and numerous children, along with other affairs.  As the book opens, we find David with his daughter and eighth wife on board his small yacht as he dies of cancer.  Throughout the course of the book, we see David's life primarily through the eyes of his daughter, Emma.  We go back and forth between current time, as David dies, and Emma's retelling of the family's past.  Much of this past revolves around a play about King David, written by Emma's estranged husband and her father's obsession with that play.

I'll be posting a review with my thoughts on the writing and entertainment value later, but these posts are intended to focus on a topical aspect of the book.  They may contain spoilers, so be warned.  If you've read this one or have something to add, please join in in the comments section!

I'm going to address a topic that was small in relation to the major themes of the book as a whole, but that stood out to me.  Hopefully, addressing a more minor aspect will keep me from repeating (inadequately) what the other members are discussing.  My favorite moment in the book described the relationship between the biblical David and Jonathan.  Emma and her husband, who at that point in the book is writing his play, mention how sexualized our culture has become.  They are discussing whether or not David and Jonathan had a plutonic or romantic love and Emma wishes that people could allow friendship to be intimate without sexualizing it.  

One of the best lectures I ever attended in college was given by a male professor who had a very close platonic relationship with another male professor.  They memorized Shakespeare's sonnets together and walked around campus quoting them.  The lecture was given regarding Tennyson's relationship to his beloved friend in In Memoriam.  Current scholars debate Tennyson's relationship with his friend, as they do Shakespeare's relationship with the male subject of his sonnets.  The professor compared his friendship to both of these and mourned the culture's inability to accept expressionf of platonic male friendship.

We've come a long way in our acceptance of various sexualities and expressions of sexuality.  Many things that were considered immoral or even illegal are now culturally acceptable.  However, we still can't seem to wrap our heads around the idea of two men loving each other in a non-romantic way.  If a man tells another man that he loves him, especially if he expresses that love physically or in any sort of emotional way, we assume they are romantically involved.  The same often applies to women.  Sugar Bear and I are affectionate with each other publically (Sugar Bear is my sister if you're not aware) and we've gotten the stink eye (or cat calls) more than once.  I'm not talking about frenching my baby sister here - but we sometimes hold hands when we walk and kiss on the cheek to greet each other.  Emma also mentions this same experience at a later point in the book, as she holds hands on a walk with one of her father's wives.

While this only gets a brief specific mention in the book, it does tie to several other themes seen throughout the story.  This was especially evident to me in Emma's rape.  I think L'Engle did a good job of pulling together Billy's sexual aggression towards Emma with her earlier comments to her husband on the sexualized nature of relationships.  What should have been a platonic brother-sister relationship became something more when Billy gave in to the demands of culture and the pressure of his family.  We also see this happen time and again in David's relationships with various women.  Sex is the assumed mode of communication and expression of love between two people at any given time. 

What do you think, Reader Friends?  Am I wrong?  Tell me why!  I love a good discussion on things like this!  Also, if you see me on the street loving on a cute brunette, get your mind out of the gutter - that's my Sugar Bear!

You can see posts on the book by other Round Table members at these links:

Book Journey

My Friend Amy


The 3 R's Blog

Ignorant Historian

Victorious Cafe

Tina's Book Reviews

Word Lily

Book Addiction

Roving Reads

My Random Thoughts

Books and Movies

Crazy for Books


  1. I'm glad you chose this topic to address for your post - I didn't bring it up in mine, but was hoping someone would. I agree with Emma's assertion that our culture is so sexualized that it can't see a Jonathan-David type of friendship in any other way. I think it's unfortunate, because it can keep men from having deep, meaningful friendships because of fear of how it will be perceived.

  2. I agree, our culture isn't very good at allowing physical expressions of friendship-love. When I visited Cameroon (over a decade ago now), it was interesting that male/female physical interaction (even hand holding) was *very* frowned in public, but women could freely interlock their arms, walk hand-in-hand, greet each other with a kiss — all without anyone thinking anything of it.

  3. Excellent post, and so true. We sexualize EVERYTHING now and you can even see it in things that aren't human relationships, which is why I am resistant to the sexualization of book reviews and such we see now. And it does create a barrier to really strong and healthy friendships that can be both physically affectionate and full of deep love.

  4. I'm glad you explored this angle; I don't think there was as strong an analogy to this as to other aspects of the King David story, but you make some excellent observations about norms and cultural filtering. I'm not sure I agree with your take on Billy, though; I think he was just a jerk, period.

  5. I agree that our culture is overly sexualized and I think it impacts men more than woman. While in Zimbabwe I was often struck by the intimacy and friendships the men shared with one another. Holding hands, hugging etc and it was all very platonic. This would simply not happen by and large in our society.

    That said I haven't read this particular book (although it sounds really interesting) but the Jonathan and David relationship in the Bible in my opinion (and the opinion of my old testament professors at yale) was one of more than friendship. Of course I will freely admit my liberal bias and the liberal bias of my professors however well researched they may be.

    I could write a whole novel because this is the kind of thing I love discussing so I'll stop now. Very interesting discussion thank you!

  6. Great thoughts!! You bring up such a valid question- If you saw two men walking around in the mall with linked arms you would think they are a couple (at least I would)Yet Ive linked arms with a BFF and never thought twice about it...Its sad that men cant show any type of affection without outsiders pointing the sex finger at them.