Escaping the Patriarchy for Good

In her 1963 novel, The Wall, Marlen Haushofer offered a character who has agency and a desire to make the world and herself anew.

A woman's face against the blurred background of a countryside
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic; Jasmin Merdan / Getty; ZU_09 / Getty

On a cool spring evening, a woman prepares risotto in the spartan kitchen of a hunting lodge, eats it alone, and scoops some out for the dog. The next morning, she makes a startling discovery: At some point during the night, an invisible, impermeable barrier has appeared outside, dividing her from much of the Austrian countryside. She calls it, simply, “the wall.” When she presses her hand to it, it feels “like a windowpane.” She beats it with her fist; it holds. She walks alongside it to locate where it ends; it doesn’t. (Later, when it becomes clear that everyone on the other side of the wall has died, their corpses petrified like “stone,” she decides she’d rather remain separated from “the incomprehensible thing” that had happened to them.) She is stranded; she is completely alone. Presumably, every person she knew and loved—her two daughters, her friends—is on the other side; she will never see them again.

The Wall, Marlen Haushofer’s brutal and absorbing dystopian novel, first published in 1963 and recently reissued (with a translation by Shaun Whiteside), seems to belong among the gaggle of contemporary books that examine the isolated life in our pandemic era, and it does. I have not encountered a more apt metaphor for the sudden shearing away of my own hyper-social, bare-faced, pre-pandemic life. But The Wall is also a resonant and realistic account of a widowed, middle-aged woman, disenchanted and depressed with the sum of her days, who is presented with the opportunity to enact what has previously eluded her: a life of her own imagining. In this way, Haushofer’s book is one of the most profoundly feminist works of the past century.

In many contemporary novels, isolation functions as only a momentary escape from a woman’s life. The arc of exile finishes when she emerges—from a vacation, a stint at an institution, a period of emotional detachment—relatively unchanged, and resolutely determined to push forward. But within the total and unrelenting enclosure of The Wall, a woman is transformed—physically, psychologically—into a woman freed of the strictures of modern life. She is no longer a widow, a mother, an aging woman; she is a person fully devoted to ensuring her own existence.

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a rich, beautiful young woman is unable to locate a reason to continue living and retreats to her apartment to spend a year self-medicating, removed from the major bummer of her own life, which includes an unsatisfying relationship with a misogynist. In Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, an aging academic’s solo vacation is interrupted when she meets a young woman and her toddler daughter; they trigger a cascade of memories of her own struggles as a young mother, and the decision she made to leave her family for three years so she could live, have sex, and work as she pleased.

As a reader who happens to be a woman, these scenarios seem relatable and realistic, and though they envision dark images of womanhood, sometimes they even feel aspirational. Contemporary life presents many compelling reasons to escape it, not least of which is the fact that my body and the choices I make about it do not fully belong to me—in my lifetime, this has been neither clearer nor more dire than in the past few months.

Moshfegh suggests in her novel that resignation is an act of rehabilitation, that comfort and pleasure can be found in bowing out, in accepting that one’s circumstances aren’t likely to improve. “My hibernation was self-preservational,” the narrator says. “I thought that it was going to save my life.” It’s a bleak admission that portends a bleak existence: For most of her year-long experiment, she subdues herself with a concoction of sedatives and mood stabilizers. In The Lost Daughter, Leda seeks excitement and intellectual fulfillment when she leaves her family, the freedom of “running after my own desires.” Though her escape is referenced repeatedly, the reader is not privy to the charged creativity and passion of those years; instead, Ferrante summarizes it as a “confused tangle of desires and great arrogance.” Perhaps what makes reading The Wall so often thrilling is that the narrator faces the challenges of survival and fights every day to stay alive. The novel is propelled by possibility and adventure, a curiosity about what a woman becomes when she is freed of the obligation of family and gender—not only for a moment, but permanently. What new pleasures might she discover; what peculiar ideas might she explore?

The Wall was published two years after the Berlin Wall was erected. Haushofer wrote it amid the grim paranoia of the Cold War, omniscient satellites orbiting the Earth, conflict in Vietnam, the highly publicized trial of Adolf Eichmann. The book is struck through with a persistent sense of unease; the woman occasionally thinks she hears footsteps in a nearby gorge, but no one appears. In the tree branches above her, chirping birds suddenly go silent. She keeps a loaded gun by her bed.

Nature sometimes behaves strangely: Sunlight grows “colder and harsher”; a creek runs yellow; a violent storm stirs the bells of a distant church, producing a “ghostly sound.” Predictably, natural forces present numerous obstacles to her survival. To forage or hunt, she must traverse long meadows and steep hills, and she develops large blisters that burst and ooze in her boots. In the winter, she shivers unceasingly, huddled and dressed in all her clothing; she develops rheumatism in her joints. Later, she performs viscerally agonizing self-dentistry and develops a feverish illness that nearly kills her. Still, she mostly remains calmly present, entrenched in reality, remarkably determined, resilient, even lighthearted. Within the greensward surrounding her, she finds much to admire. One summer, during a walk in the woods, she sits down on a stone to rest and notices how peaceful she feels: “I wished I could sit there forever, in the warmth, in the light; the dog at my feet and the circling bird above.”

As it happens, the woman is not without company. There is the dog, Lynx, the keen companion of the friends whose cabin she occupies (and who were on “the other side” when the wall appeared); a disdainful feline and her litters of doomed kittens; and a cow, Bella, who ambles into this predicament carrying a calf—a marvel, a burden—whom the woman names Bull. She avoids looking at the wall, and in time, even forgets to think about it. Instead, she becomes absorbed in the work of caring for her four-legged charges. Their needs are not dissimilar to hers and help her learn to feed herself and organize her days: She and Lynx need meat, so she hunts; she and the cat need milk, so she milks Bella. To produce milk and raise a healthy calf, Bella needs a clean pen, so she scythes and harvests hay from the meadow and stores it for winter.

The woman becomes the “owner and the prisoner” of these animals, “the head of our curious family.” The animals, for their part, offer socialization, even friendship. She recognizes their companionship as crucial to her survival. About the cat, “I don’t think [she] needs me as desperately as I need her.” She narrates their doings and personalities with amusement, and closely observes their habits, personalities, sense of self: “You can never laugh at cats, they take it very badly.”

Initially, the woman hews to her old standards of hygiene and routine: She brushes her teeth, winds the clocks, counts the days, “clinging to the meager remnants of human routine left to me.” But her habits gradually lose significance, and eventually she abandons them completely. “Sometimes I’m struck by how important it once was not to be five minutes late,” she muses. Her body transforms; “my curls, my little double chin, and my rounded hips” give way to a thin, long-haired figure she does not recognize: “I could simply forget I was a woman.”

She has good reason to want to forget. Looking back to the time before the wall, she sees she “never had the chance of consciously shaping” her life, that she was a “tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world that was … hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling.” She pursued marriage and raising children because she had been led to believe these things would fulfill her; instead, her husband died when he was still relatively young and her children became “two rather unpleasant, loveless, and argumentative semiadults.” At particularly low points, more than once she was moved to contemplate suicide, which she came to view as the only means of escaping her disappointing existence. In contrast, her life after the wall is stripped of the socialized pressures of gender performance, the numerous forces that eroded her agency. Misogyny, a once intractable presence, no longer punishes her. Instead, she is ruled by survival, the desire to keep living, and a new understanding that her life, which once felt disposable, is worth toiling for.

It is the completeness of her isolation that so dramatically transforms the woman in The Wall, and so distinguishes her circumstances from the temporary escape achieved by Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator. At the conclusion of her self-exile, she concludes, somewhat flatly, “Life is worth living.” It is difficult to discern how exactly she has changed; it seems naive to assume she won’t one day find life unbearable again. This is true, too, for Ferrante’s Leda. After a three-year affair and fulfilling, focused work, she simply returns to her old life. “I was resigned to living very little for myself and a great deal for the two children,” she says. “Gradually I succeeded.” Of course, that these women have not been able to change their circumstances is the point. In comparison, the protagonist of The Wall cannot return to her former life; whatever it looked like, it no longer exists. So she churns butter, scythes hay, hunts deer, darns socks. She draws tarot cards, invents games, reads and rereads books, creating a “familiar ordinariness” of her own.

If The Wall offers a feminist alternative to contemporary life, it’s thoroughly austere, defined by constant toil, unending solitude, the ever-present threat of danger. Still, every woman I know who has read it has been gripped by it. It’s exciting to encounter a subversion of the conventional survival story—a genre generally considered to be the province of men and masculine attitudes. In places, The Wall suggests a feminist alternative that cherishes nature. It also orients women as the primary forces of change in our own lives, especially when the future flickers with peril.

The Wall begins more than two years after the titular barrier appeared. Having survived so long on her own, the woman decides it is time to develop her brief, diaristic notes into a fuller record of her days: what she has learned about tending potatoes, the delight of watching a cat stretch out in a sunbeam, her great losses and suffering. But she mostly writes to assuage an encroaching fear; she foresees her eventual transformation into something animal, “dirty and stinking, emitting incomprehensible noises.” When she runs out of paper or ink, she plans to hide the account so the “strange thing I might turn into” can’t find it. As she writes up to her present day, she notes her dwindling store of matches and ammunition. Where she once worried over their finitude, she now feels a calm assurance about her own capabilities. In the last lines she writes, “Something new is coming, and I can’t escape that.”