Disparity in Gender Roles in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”: A Feminist Criticism
The core battle in the modern Feminist movement has been the battle against set gender roles. Women no longer feel that it is mandatory for them to be a mother and a housewife simply because they were born female, or that it is a man’s role to be a worker and a breadwinner simply because he was born male. Thus, it is common in feminist articles and literature to discuss the idea of “blending” gender roles. Through the character of Seymour Glass in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” J.D. Salinger successfully blurs conventional masculine and feminine roles, creating a persona that would, in any other situation, be an asset to feminist philosophy. However, by representing Seymour as quantifiably insane and suicidal, Salinger creates a tragically anti-feminist character who essentially reestablishes antiquated gender stereotypes.
Buddy Glass, the narrator of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour, an Introduction,” describes his brother as a typical boy. Seymour gets his hair cut at the barber, is the best marble player on the playground, and is “the Fastest Boy Runner in the World” (“Seymour” 162-211). Seymour is clearly expected to abide by the appropriate male gender roles. However, Buddy’s descriptions of Seymour in his elder years largely breaks free of gender role boundaries. According to openly anti-feminist scholar Stephen B. Clark, “[m]en bear primary responsibility for the larger community. Women bear primary responsibility for domestic management and rearing of young children” (Clark 36). However, Buddy consistently describes Seymour as a mother figure in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Taking on traditionally feminine responsibilities, Seymour not only takes care of his younger siblings, but also expresses a deep, almost maternal nature. In his journal, Seymour describes several distinct moments of “mothering,” such as when he takes his younger brother Zooey to a movie: “He was about six or seven, and he went under the seat to avoid watching a scary scene. I put my hand on his head” (“Raise” 75). This tender action is rarely demonstrated in male characters, and thus must be categorized as a “feminine” trait. Seymour goes even further than comforting his siblings during horror films; Buddy describes him getting up in the middle of the night with a crying Franny and feeding her from a bottle (3). This is an unmistakably motherly image, highly unusual in a male character. In many ways, this is exactly the type of character that feminist theorists long for: one who breaks away from clear-cut gender-roles and can successfully shift their customary responsibilities.
However, though Seymour in and of himself is an ideal feminist character, Salinger creates a number of problems that fundamentally contradict with this development. For example, the Maid of Honor constantly makes remarks that emasculate Seymour. She not only comments that Seymour is most likely “a latent homosexual” (36), but also complains that he does not “just tell [his fianc?©], like a man” (24). Even though the reader is not meant to view the Maid of Honor as a reliable character, hers is the only opinion Salinger gives in association with Seymour’s masculinity and gender position. Therefore, whether she is entirely trustworthy or not, the judgment is clear: it is not “manly” to take part in the feminine sphere. In order to reconcile Seymour’s sex with his maternal instincts and sense of duty, he cannot be portrayed as wholly heterosexual. The message, essentially, is that he cannot be a “real” man and still take on a “woman’s role.”
Still, the main blow against the feminist idea of gender-role blurring is Salinger’s option to make Seymour unstable and conceivably insane. By portraying Seymour in such a light, Salinger reinforces the anti-feminist argument that the act of gender blurring will cause, “[m]en and women [to] develop psychological instability…[and] that those groups in modern society most directly affected by the feminist movement [will be] plagued by psychological problems” (Clark 41). Salinger clearly shows that Seymour cannot live happily in a conventional marriage with his unconventional gender role. His marriage is, in effect, a failure-not only do he and his wife, Charlotte, produce no children in their six years of marriage, but Seymour goes so far as to “[commit] suicide in 1948, while he was in Florida with his wife” (“Raise” 5). This is the ultimate blow against gender blurring, as the collapse of the “traditional family” is the main argument that anti-feminists such as Clark rely on.
A second feminist interpretation of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” suggests that Salinger actually intended the story to be a commentary on the repressive nature of a society that does not allow gender blurring. Such a masculine-dominated society denies Seymour’s feminine side and thus drives him to suicide. This reading would be considerably more feminist, and would thus make Salinger’s short story an asset to the feminist philosophy rather than a hindrance. However, in order for this argument to be sound, one would have to disregard the emphasis on Seymour’s insanity. In the story, it is not simply the outside world that judges Seymour as insane, but also his brother, Buddy (76). Consequently, Seymour Glass is transformed from the poster boy for feminist gender role conversion into a tragic example of the failure of gender systems. In this way, Salinger develops Seymour into a strike against the feminist movement, thus illustrating that it is impossible for one to live a sane, content, and whole life outside of traditional gender roles.
Clark, Stephen B. “The Universality of Sex Roles.” Sex & Gender: A Spectrum of Views. Ed. Philip Devine and Celia Wolf-Devine. Belmont: Wadsworth 2003.
Salinger, J.D. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction. 1955. Boston: Little Brown. 1991.
–, “Seymour, an Introduction.” Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction. 1959. Boston: Little Brown. 1991.
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