Unempowered Women in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

As American radical feminist, scholar, lawyer and activist Catharine MacKinnon once said, “Women and men are divided by gender, made into the sexes as we know them, by the social requirements of heterosexuality, which institutionalizes male sexual dominance and female sexual submission” (WikiQuote). The concepts of male dominance and female submission, as well as female rejection, are omnipresent throughout Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a novel in which women are regarded as inferior beings subject to male power. This story suggests that whether a woman submits to or rejects patriarchal expectations, she nevertheless lacks empowerment. This notion is exemplified through Duddy Kravitz’s female characters’ relationships with men, namely Yvette Durelle, Aunt Ida and Linda Rubin.

Yvette Durelle’s evolving relationship with big time operator Duddy Kravitz demonstrates how a female lacks empowerment whether she complies with or dismisses the patriarchy. In fact, Yvette is initially obedient to Duddy and does whatever it takes to help him achieve his goal of attaining the land, regardless of what the outcome is for her. She unquestioningly signs the deeds to his land in her name because “the farmers would be wary of a young Jew,” and she does not fight the fact that Duddy treats her as a money-making tool without compensating her, whether it be her endless help in acquiring the land or in starting up his movie enterprise (Richler 109). Yvette’s actions during the beginning of their relationship demonstrate how she is willingly subservient to the patriarchy because she fails to recognize the extent to which she is being taken advantage of. However, she does eventually realize that Duddy is treating her in an unjust manner and is doing “lots of dishonest things,” so she begins to reject him and his demands (247). She is no longer sweet and obedient, and instead speaks to him in a “special cold voice” (190), “[throws] her drink in Duddy’s face” (267) and tells him to “go to hell” (247) when she feels that Duddy is taking advantage of epileptic Virgil. Seeing Duddy act manipulative and sneaky pushes her to discard his male superiority, and she begins to stand up for herself and what she cares about.

Furthermore, Yvette lacks empowerment whether she is compliant or dismissive of patriarchal ways. While she is still acquiescent, Duddy calls her his “Girl Friday” (228), which is the female version of Man Friday, “a name for a devoted male servant or assistant” (Dictionary.com), and she is still unhappy when she rejects him based on his unreasonable behaviour and attitude. This suggests that a woman simply cannot win in a patriarchal world; if she is subservient she is regarded as a domestic slave, which is certainly not a powerful image, and she is not much better-off if she is contemptuous. Overall, neither submission nor rejection of men result in a woman feeling empowered.

Unlike Yvette, Aunt Ida is never docile with regards to her husband Benjy, and she illustrates how rebuff of male dominance also results in her disempowerment. For example, Ida decides that she is not forced to succumb to patriarchal expectations of women and does as she pleases, regardless of what Benjy has to say about it. Initially, she “[begins] to take trips alone” and is not afraid to be apart from Benjy, which was unconventional for the time (Richler 48). Ida embodies the fearless rejection of patriarchy during a time when married women were supposed to be dependent on their husbands. Likewise, she further transcends the normative 1950’s female and pushes the envelope of patriarchy when she decides to call off her marriage to Benjy. Duddy tells Lennie that “she wants a divorce” because “there’s another man” that she met while in Miami, and Benjy takes the news terribly; “he looks terrible” and is “so skinny all of a sudden” (264). This is especially controversial because a woman was expected to be a “happy homemaker,” and during this time it was not typical for the wife to be the one to call off the marriage, further supporting how Ida rejected the patriarchal norms of her time (Mrs. America).

Finally, one would think that this would leave Ida feeling empowered, considering that she handled the situation at her discretion, but this turns out not to be the case. She portrays herself as a foolish pseudoscientist when she claims that Benjy brought the cancer upon himself, believing that “psychology has proven that people can bring such diseases on themselves” (Richler 271), and lives in “a small, junky-looking place” (270) because she refuses to take any of his money. Despite being separated from Benjy, she continues to live a petty life and still thinks about all the ways in which Benjy was a failure, which makes her miserable and unempowered as well.

Linda Rubin, Irwin Shubert’s girlfriend, also exemplifies how a woman’s decision to support the patriarchy leaves her powerless. To begin, her obedience towards men is seen when she helps Irwin at Hotel Lac des Sables the night of the roulette game. She does not question any of Irwin’s motives or decisions. Instead, she is submissively used by and helps Irwin cheat Duddy out of earnings while gambling. She gets Duddy drunk and convinces him to bank the upcoming game, and later admits that she was aware that the wheel was an old toy with “certain tendencies [that] Irwin knew,” but never thought that he would do such a thing to Kravitz (102). The fact that she acts as the compliant help demonstrates how Irwin has complete control over the situation, and she is not an empowered woman capable of thinking and acting for herself based on her own values and ideas.

Moreover, Linda is objectified by the men around her, and this contributes to her lack of empowerment. While Duddy and Cuckoo speak about the ways they approach women regarding sex, Duddy exclaims that “Linda was something else. Soft, curvy and nifty enough for one of those snazzy fashion magazines” (86). It is clear that he only values Linda for her desirable physical traits, and she lacks any sort of power that accompanies intelligence and personality. Additionally, Linda is frequently regarded as a man’s property in Duddy Kravitz, which is demeaning of women’s status in contemporary society. She is defined by her status as “the daughter of a hotel owner” (87) and Irwin claims that “Linda was supposed to be his girl” (88). She fails to be her own person, and her dependent relationship on men reinforces the notion that her submission to the patriarchy results in her powerlessness.

Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz illustrates how a woman lacks empowerment whether she is submissive or rejectful of men. Richler implies this through the three primary female characters, specifically Yvette Durelle, Aunt Ida and Linda Rubin. In all, women find themselves in a position of inferiority to men regardless of their attitudes towards the patriarchy.