Gail Godwin

A Sorrowful Woman

  • This summary of A Sorrowful Woman includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Sorrowful Woman Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Sorrowful Woman by Gail Godwin.

In 1976, the bestselling American novelist Gail Godwin published a collection of feminist and anti-patriarchal short stories titled Dream Children. One of these stories, “A Sorrowful Woman,” uses the simple declarative sentences and objective perspective to give a fairytale feel to its story of a woman struggling to cope with the expectations of her role as a wife and mother. This makes the story in keeping with the collection’s overall theme of exploring the ways unfulfilling domestic lives undermine and destabilize the psychological and emotional health of the women trapped in them.

The story starts with the phrase that traditionally begins fairytales, “Once upon a time.” It is winter, and we meet a young wife and mother who is starting to become ill at the sight of her husband and young son. Withdrawing to a spare room in her house, the woman is described as a “cloistered queen,” who ends up caging herself in a tower – but of course the irony is that her true imprisonment is her monotonous existence as a mother and wife.

The woman’s reaction to her family grows more extreme. When her son wakes her up in the mornings to play, she is terrified of him – despite the fact that he is described as loving, golden, and tender. One day, in fear, she hits him. At this point, her deeply kind and understanding husband steps in to try to help by hiring a nanny and housekeeper.

The nanny takes over not just the childrearing, but also all the household chores. She is a calm and nurturing presence in the son’s life. Everything seems ok until she decides to try to slowly rebuild the relationship between mother and son by bringing him into the mother’s room to show her a grasshopper he’s caught. The mother is deeply upset by this intrusion into her space and demands that her husband fire the nanny. Despite the nanny’s protest and her concerns for the son’s future, the father accedes to the mother. Going forward, he rearranges his work schedule in order to also be able to take care of everything in the house and his son.

The mother’s condition continues to worsen. She now only leaves her room at night while the father and son are asleep, furtively creeping around the house to get whatever food she needs. She no longer verbally communicates with her family, instead asking them to only talk to her by sliding notes under her door that she answers in the same way. She spends her days methodically brushing her hair and sometimes trying to compose poetry, which she ends up finding too overwhelming because the choice of words is unlimited. Trying to accommodate her strangeness, both father and son continue to be as supporting and nonjudgmental as possible.

One day, the father and son spend the day away from home. Finding herself alone, the mother emerges from her room and bakes a loaf of bread. When her family returns home, they are thrilled to see that she seems to be on the way to recovery and thank her profusely for the effort. But unfortunately, this gesture of baking bread isn’t actually a sign that the mother is getting better.

Feeling oppressed by their attention, the mother again waits until the father and son leave for the day, emerges from her room, and engages in a flurry of sudden activity. She cleans the house, cooks a multi-course meal, and writes a few love poems for her husband. When he and the son return, they are even more excited to see what she has done. But when they go to her room to try to thank her for coming back to them, it turns out that she has killed herself and is lying on the bed. Outside, the weather has turned to spring and everything is blooming. Her son is too young to understand what has happened, and the story ends with him asking her whether he can start eating the turkey she’s made.

Like other short stories that portray their female protagonists being trapped within an inescapable patriarchal system – for example, “The Yellow Wallpaper” or “The Story of an Hour” – “A Sorrowful Woman” refuses to give a simple explanation for the woman’s breakdown. Instead, what the story stresses is that individually, both her husband and son are wonderful, helpful, and entirely blameless.  Rather, what’s making the woman’s mental state deteriorate is the lack of options outside of being a wife and a mother – roles she can’t perform even in this best-case scenario. This inability is contrasted with the dutiful nanny, who easily completes these tasks for money, and with the positive and sympathetic father, who also uncomplainingly and ably takes on the maternal role. One of the story’s ironies is that however kind, concerned, and indulgent her husband is, his solicitousness only reinforces how much she doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of his care.