Is There a Price to Pay for Every Damn Thing?
by Cathy Cupitt


The High Price of Freedom for Women in The Children’s Bach and Joan Makes History

It has been suggested that the “modern woman’s quest for emancipation in contemporary Australian literature is shown to have been a failure”2. I believe that this suggestion is invalid. Not because the statement is true or untrue, but because the concept of women’s emancipation is so fraught to begin with. To emancipate is “to free from restraint of any kind, especially the inhibitions of tradition”3. While it is obviously true that the emancipation of women from some traditions and restraints would be beneficial, both individually and to the society as a whole, to step completely outside of the bounds of society can be read not only as freedom, but as exclusion. If women achieve exclusion from society is that to be seen as a success or a failure?

In my opinion it is not exclusion but equitable integration that is the road to true emancipation for women. However, the idea of integration also brings with it the idea of compromise, and how can a freedom wrought through compromises be seen as either a complete success or total failure?

The issue of what constitutes successful emancipation for women has been explored in two contemporary Australian novels: The Children’s Bach4 and Joan Makes History. In this essay I will explore the contradictions and confusions discovered through Athena’s and Joan’s searches for personal freedom, and the mixture of failure and success in the freedom they eventually find when they go ‘home’.

The Children’s Bach

“If I hadn’t been a feminist I quite probably wouldn’t have become a writer”5 says Garner, indicating the importance of feminism in her own quest for self identity and freedom. Her definition of feminism is “a simple matter of being intelligently for women and women’s freedom to develop as decent human beings”6. And although she considers marriage “an institution that is not set up with the welfare of women in mind”7, she also recognises a “powerful urge in people … to marry”8. It stands to reason then, that in her fiction she would explore the possibilities of the tradition of marriage with the view of finding ways it will allow women to develop into “decent human beings”.

With these attitudes mind, it becomes apparent that there is nothing incongruous in Garner’s heroine Athena searching for freedom, and finding a version of it in her own marital home. The novel is not as simple and reductive as that, however. Athena’s ‘search’ for freedom reveals the exact nature of her domestic imprisonment to the reader, as well as the complexity of consequences of any kind of external escape. Her ‘homecoming’ reveals the capacity for a redefinition of her traditional role, and the limits of such a redefinition.

The Search

The Fox household appears to Vicky and the reader to be a warm, rounded burrow (p.10). But beneath this simple surface “there is a hell of a lot of psychological and emotional labour being done to sustain”9 it. Female labour, which goes unrecognised or valued until it is gone. Dexter, for example, is oblivious to the niceties of a light-weight iron, and he cannot operate a washing machine, even in order to hide his shame. This is women’s work and therefore not worth knowing about.

These are only a couple of relatively mild examples of an “undercurrent of cruelty and degradation directed at women”10 throughout the book. The reader finds that Dexter constantly speaks for Athena, and condescendingly puts down her efforts at self expression – her abortive interest in makeup, and her learning to play the piano. Elizabeth is confronted by a misogynist joke (p.76), and wordlessly sympathises with a humiliated woman on a bus (p.45). Vicky has meaningless sex with the two father figures in her life – Dexter and Philip. And Poppy is warned by her father that if she doesn’t use her brains she will end up in places like the Paradise Bar where “men fuck girls without loving them. Girls cry in the lavatories” (p.18). Fathers in this book exercise an “idealistic authority that remains fundamentally abstract and inhibiting”11.

Everywhere there are signs that there are patriarchally imposed limits for women. Nowhere is this more evident than in Athena’s relationship to music, which effectively describes her relationship to the power structures of society. “Unlike Dexter, Athena’s music is diminutive and tentative”12, and even then it infuriates Dexter to the point of physical intervention when she plays her piano (p.63).

The tension of the novel emerges from the intense conflict between the actual expansive, accepting and cohesive nature of Athena’s being and the limitations placed on her to the activity of … ‘doing’ self expression.13

Even when Athena is alone and can freely fantasise any escape from this imprisoning domesticity, her fantasies seem to be bound by the expectation of a domestic role. “Athena lived, for as long as it took to read a card, in each sunny cottage … her children dematerialised, her husband died painlessly” (p.22). Not dreams of adventure or making history, but dreams of making curtains.

This leads the reader to suspect it is not the confinements of the domestic role alone which eventually causes her to leave home on her search for freedom. It seems, rather, as though she is escaping form other people’s projected expectations – particularly Dexter’s, but also Vicky’s. To Dexter and Vicky Athena is a “Saint” (p.79), an heroic Goddess who will always be there to toil and love them, “contained, without needs, never restless” (p. 26). This is the ultimate nature of her imprisonment. Not merely the daily drudgery, and the repetitive routine, but her
lack of any choice in how she is valued.

Her eventual flight is more than “a rejection of household routine. She is also escaping the heroic role that has been thrust upon her by others”14.

Athena’s search for freedom to define herself takes her into Philip’s night world. Firstly through night time walks on her own, and later by actually leaving with Philip for Sydney and a brief affair. But this ‘escape’ into the night world is an ambiguous one – this is after all the world of the Paradise Bar where “girls cry in the lavatories”. This is the world where sex exists without love, betrayal is a matter of course, and emotional detachment is the norm.

This is the world that Elizabeth has chosen instead of a traditional married role. One consequence of Elizabeth’s choice of this world, and her “hard rejection of domesticity [is] to become her own subject. But it is possible that the novel also demonstrates how she reveals the personal cost of independence”15. The cost is isolation. Elizabeth is in a constant state of the numbness Athena feels when leaving Dexter (p.65), she has not merely abandoned one person in her heart, but the whole world. Only the occasional moment of compassion is left for us to witness – for example when she consoles Athena with the saying: “If only those birds sang – that sang the best – how silent the woods would be” (p.30).

The image of the rabbit freed by Athena and Vicky (p.39) distils the ambiguous nature of freedom. What is true freedom? Some types of freedom can be dangerous if you don’t have the skills to deal with it. Freedom can be lonely, and full of predators. For the rabbit, caged all its life, freedom is as terrifying as a trap, leaving it “crouched shuddering between tussocks, under the huge blank sky”.

Athena’s search for freedom leads us to ponder the consequences of her ‘escape’. Has it really freed her? Which is more limiting: the constrictions of traditional roles, or having only a momentary sexual value? At least Elizabeth has achieved public ‘success’ as a consequence of her choice. This hardly seems a possibility for Athena. If these are the only options then, surely, ‘successful’ emancipation for Athena can never be possible.

However, the novel does show an option involving an imperfect, yet hopeful, compromise. There is a positive side to married love. It is not only an escape from emotional isolation, but it can, sometimes, involve change. Even so, there are limits to the possibilities of redefining her traditional role. This becomes most clear when Athena decides to go home.

The Homecoming

When Athena returns home, it is apparent that she has accepted that her life will be with Dexter, and that the status quo will not have changed very much. She has chosen domesticity over the freedom of isolation, and “it is a domesticity which celebrates the joy of love and warmth and order”16. The homecoming is not all joy and new-found equality, however. The image of Athena putting her head on Dexter’s knee is a submissive one (p.95), but a submission tempered by change.

Although her return to the home, her vigorous house cleaning and general sense that things will go on appear ambivalent, there is a clear sense that [Athena] has changed … Significantly, this change in her is represented by her freedom with the piano.17

There is something wilful and self-possessed about the description of Athena’s new confidence with the piano, the way she “will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air” (p.96). It is as though she will no longer accept being silenced by Dexter’s music and condescension. As though her new knowledge of the world has given her access to a small slice of ‘male’ power.

There is nothing heroic or ‘saintly’ about Athena’s response to the filthy house. She cleans it. There is no hint that a new enlightened Dexter will learn how to pick up an iron, or turn on a washing machine. And yet, the routine of cleaning the house is not portrayed as drudgery. Order is created out of disorder, and it smells like cotton just bought in off the clothes line. But although this is satisfying to the senses, and evokes a deep feeling of emotional satisfaction on the part of the reader, where is Athena’s emancipation? Has her flight produced nothing more than a new confidence to play Bach when the house is empty?

I think the end of The Children’s Bach can be read as more than this. “In refusing to conclude by affirming public success – for example by having Athena ‘master’ Bach,” Garner “reject[s] the success/failure binary opposition by which patriarchal standards judge female activity”18. Leaving judgement on what has been achieved open to a new interpretation.

There is no rhetoric of moral certainty here. Whether or not Athena’s quest for personal freedom, for the freedom to “develop as decent human being”, is a success or a failure remains ambiguous. In my opinion it is certainly a partial success, as she gains the ability to make choices through some level of experience, rather than through blind ignorance, and she gains some level of self expression. Both of these freedoms seem too valuable to discount entirely. However, I also think that Athena’s search for freedom is a partial failure – it is certainly very limited in its scope.

It is this ambiguous nature of the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ dichotomy with regards to the emancipation of individual women that leads me to the assertion that considering women’s freedom in these terms is not viable, or particularly productive.

Joan Makes History

Grenville’s stance is not unlike Garner’s with regards to feminism. She states: “feminism for me has always been about broadening options – it’s been a response to the gap between the real and the ideal and trying to bridge that gap”19. It’s about “giving glory to occupations type-cast as inglorious – women’s occupations”20. With reference to literature she poses the questions: “Where is the great novel about housework? Where are the great novels about being a parent?”21.

Like The Children’s Bach, Joan Makes History makes use of the motifs of ‘the search’ and ‘the homecoming’ in order to explore these ideas of the gender type-casting of occupations and how they are valued, and the achievement of women’s emancipation through increasing their options.

Many of the same themes also appear. The emphasis is once again placed on the fact that Joan is a woman living in patriarchally ordered world, where social roles and conventions are the most important elements limiting women. As with Athena, there is a constant ambiguity about Joan’s life: an uncertainty about whether she is successful in her quest to ‘make history’ or a failure when she opts for domesticity.

Like most feminist writers Grenville is intent upon challenging the limited number and scope of the roles assigned to women within the existing social structures and examining the reasons for their apparent powerlessness to change their situation.22

The Search

Through Joan’s ‘search’ for her destiny – the thing that she will do to make history – it becomes apparent that the criteria for Joan’s success are patriarchally determined. History must be about doing something ‘important’, something other than having babies and doing domestic work. Something public, individual, and big, and preferably involving the life or death of lots of other people, an act “to make the earth shiver on its axis”(p.49). And it is very much a man’s job. The very idea that Joan can make this kind of history causes even two men who love her to “laugh and slap their thighs” (p.43).

As we watch Joan try different roles in her search for her destiny, Grenville directs us to a new conception of history. One which reveals that world shaking history making is just a chimera that elevates the (usually male) individual, and obliterates the rest of those involved23, and that there might be “more satisfying things to do than just ape men”24.

Women’s traditional roles are often group ones (for example being a parent requires at least a parent and a child), in which the glorification of a single individual negates the participation of others. So this traditional, individualistic definition of what constitutes history is not always particularly useful to women, and perhaps even exacts a high price. It is this very train of thought that enables the devaluation of women’s traditional roles. After all, what is there to glorify in changing nappies or washing socks? The jobs may be important, but they are repetitive and mundane, and any one can do them if they have to.

Grenville offers the reader two responses to this hero-centric notion of history. One is to try and actively participate in it, which is what ‘Jack’ does. However, as in The Children’s Bach, disregarding traditional roles entirely is shown to lead to isolation. As a cross dresser, Joan will always be an outsider. Isolation is the ultimate price of women’s freedom in both texts, and is shown to be too high for both Athena and Joan.

I was free, I was a woman of independent flight, I could walk along any street and, from my splendid start at the Galaxy, I could invent any destiny I pleased for myself. All that was grand, and I treasured it: but it was hollow too, and at the heart of that life there was nothing more than I, Joan, a soul spinning quite alone. (p.198)

We see the contradictions and confusions inherent in the life of Joan, as her search leads her through “the complicated interrelationships between women and men,” women and history, “and women and the patriarchal state”25. But Grenville offers us a second response to making history – to make history from within the traditional role. We are shown Joan in a partnership with a loving husband, that she has chosen after she has had some experience of the alternatives life can offer her. In the end, Joan, like Athena, chooses to go home.

The Homecoming

As in The Children’s Bach there is a validation of home and family as a choice and role of importance. Choice, after having sampled the alternatives, seems to be the key to finding a measure of freedom in domesticity.

However, there is a dark side to this picture of marital bliss. The price of being able to choose domesticity is the near destruction, for both Athena and Joan, of their relationships with their husbands. Joan’s homecoming – her reunion with Duncan – is portrayed as an irretrievable loss of trust. And for what? What history did she make through all her searching and striving?

Can Joan’s quest be seen as a success? Did she make history? Did she ever really gain her freedom as a woman and her own person, or did she just temporarily exchange one set of gender roles for another set?

Seen through the hero-centric view of history, I think Joan’s attempts to makes history can be seen as close to a total failure. But if the reader agrees with Joan’s reassessment of what constitutes history – that it can be something more organic, broader, more encompassing of the everyday effort that goes into every achievement – then I think Joan’s life can be seen as a fulfilling and successful one.

As for freedom, I think perhaps that she has indeed achieved freedom – the freedom to reject the patriarchal point of view about her own life, roles and value.

Having established her ability to succeed as a “male” in a male world, Joan refuses to be typecast in that role and, instead, asserts her freedom to choose the interlocking roles of wife, mother and grandmother.26

Once again, the resolution of whether Joan is successful or a failure depends on how the reader interprets her choice: “as affirmation or capitulation”27.

I have argued that the ideas of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ as they relate to portrayals of individual women’s quests for emancipation are not valid. This search for freedom is, in my opinion, too hard a struggle for any one woman, fictional or otherwise, to be expected to achieve totally. This is after all a quest for emancipation from a whole society structured around patriarchal power and conceptions of how things should be.

“Is there a price to pay for every damn thing?” (p.224), Joan asks. In these two books it is suggested that there is a price paid for every choice. And that the price of women’s freedom is isolation – total rejection of the traditional roles of parent and partner – a high price to pay for achieving male-defined ‘success’.

The women in these books may not succeed in finding true emancipation – equitable integration – but nor do they fail to push the bounds of what is acceptable and possible. Partial freedoms are also valuable if viewed not in an individual context, but as part of an on-going process of emancipation. And partial freedoms, although they too have a price, do not call for women to become social pariahs within these texts.

Athena’s and Joan’s quests for emancipation, for the freedom to develop into decent human beings rather than as type-cast roles, are neither successes nor failures. In fact, the quest for emancipation in The Children’s Bach and Joan Makes History is shown to be an issue still very much being faced by modern women, faced and fought for on a bridge somewhere between the real and the ideal.


Ashcroft, W.D.
“Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.”
Australian Literary Studies, 14 (4) (1990), 489-98.
Baker, Candida.
Yacker. Woollahra, Sydney: Pan Books, 1986.
Garner, Helen.
The Children’s Bach. Fitzroy, Victoria: McPhee Gribble/Penguin, 1984.
Gilbert, Pam.
Coming Out From Under: Contemporary Australian
Women Writers
. London: Pandora Press, 1988.
Goulston, Wendy.
“Herstory’s Re/vision of History: Women’s Narrative Subverts Imperial Discourse in Kate Grenville’s Joan Makes History.” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada, 7 (June, 1992), 20-27.
Grenville, Kate.
Joan Makes History. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1988.
Grenville, Kate.
“Why I Write.” Kunapipi, 16 (1) (1994), 141-142.
Haynes, Roslynn.
“Fatalism and Feminism in the Fiction of Kate Grenville.” World Literature Written in English, 31 (1) (1990), 60-79.
Kelly, Philippa.
“The Language of Subversion: Discourses of Desire in Painted Woman, The Children’s Bach, and Messages from Chaos.” Southerly, 54 (1) (Mar, 1994), 143-156.
Mansfield, Nicholas.
“‘A Pleasant, Meaningless Discord’: Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.” Westerly, 2 (June, 1991), 17-22.
The Macquarie Dictionary,
2nd Revised Edition. Macquarie University: The Macquarie Library, 1982.
Turcotte, Gerry.
“The Story-teller’s Revenge: Kate Grenville.” Kunapipi, 16 (1) (1994), 147-158.
Wachtel, Eleanor.
“‘I’m Writing to Save Myself’: An Interview with Helen Garner.” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada, 10 (Dec, 1993), 57-65.
Willbanks, Ray.
Speaking Volumes. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1991.

End Notes

  1. Kate Grenville, Joan Makes History (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1988),
    p. 224. All future references to this book are from this edition and given in text.
  2. Handout 11/243/343/96, English Department, University of Western Australia.
  3. The Macquarie Dictionary, 2nd Revised Edition (Macquarie University: The Macquarie Library, 1982), p. 577.
  4. Helen Garner, The Children’s Bach (Fitzroy, Victoria: McPhee Gribble/Penguin, 1984).
    All references to this book are from this edition and given in text.
  5. Candida Baker, Yacker (Woollahra, Sydney: Pan Books, 1986), p. 152.
  6. Eleanor Wachtel, “‘I’m Writing to Save Myself’: An Interview with Helen Garner,”
    Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 10 (Dec, 1993), 57-65. This from p. 60.
  7. Wachtel, p. 65.
  8. Wachtel, p. 65.
  9. Ray Willbanks, Speaking Volumes (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1991), p. 94.
  10. Pam Gilbert, Coming Out From Under: Contemporary Australian Women Writers (London: Pandora Press, 1988), p. 18.
  11. Nicholas Mansfield, “‘A Pleasant, Meaningless Discord’: Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach,” Westerly 2 (June, 1991),
    17-22. This from p. 18.
  12. W.D. Ashcroft, “Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach,” Australian Literary Studies 14 (4)
    (1990), 489-98. This from p. 491.
  13. Ashcroft, p. 491.
  14. Mansfield, p. 17.
  15. Ashcroft, p. 497.
  16. Gilbert, p. 21.
  17. Ashcroft, p. 498.
  18. Philippa Kelly, “The Language of Subversion: Discourses of Desire in Painted Woman,
    The Children’s Bach, and Messages from Chaos
    ,” Southerly 54 (1) (Mar, 1994), 143-156. This from p. 156.
  19. Gerry Turcotte, “The Story-teller’s Revenge: Kate Grenville,” Kunapipi 16 (1) (1994), 147-158. This from p. 153.
  20. Turcotte, p. 153.
  21. Kate Grenville, “Why I Write,” Kunapipi 16 (1) (1994), 141-142. This from p. 141.
  22. Roslynn Haynes, “Fatalism and Feminism in the Fiction of Kate Grenville,”
    World Literature Written in English 31 (1) (1990), 60-79. This from p. 61.
  23. Wendy Goulston, “Herstory’s Re/vision of History: Women’s Narrative Subverts
    Imperial Discourse in Kate Grenville’s Joan Makes History,”
    Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 7 (June, 1992), 20-27. This from p. 20.
  24. Turcotte, p. 152.
  25. Gilbert, p. 28.
  26. Haynes, p. 77.
  27. Haynes, p. 77.

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