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American Literature

The Social Criticism of Gender Roles in Tristan Bernard’s I’m Going! A Comedy in One Act

Tristan Bernard’s I’m Going! A Comedy in One Act (1915) upon a casual first encounter seems to be merely a humorous narrative about the squabbles of a married couple. In this reading of the text, Bernard is merely presenting to the audience a form of populism, appealing to the tensions common in any relationship, above all emphasizing the banality and the triviality of the many arguments that constitute married life. On this superficial reading, Bernard is doing nothing other than appealing to a common denominator of the marriage experience, and thus writing what he thinks such a married audience would wish to hear, thus providing a “cute” satire of married life. However, with a more theoretically attentive analytical approach, one that tunes into the text, for example, from the perspective of a greater social criticism, what Bernard is accomplishing is a fundamental parody of the gender roles that constitute married life, and thereby offering up a radical critique of this same married life.

The dialogue between Henri and Jeanne, therefore, must be looked at from the perspective of a typical bourgeois marriage, but afterwards, go beyond this scenario to understand how particular gender roles are enacted. The conflict upon which the narrative revolves – i.e., Jeanne wanting to go out with Henri, who gives various reasons why he does not want to go out with her – ultimately ends up with Jeanne letting Henri go to the races alone, although this was what she always intended: at the conclusion she notes to her servant: “Marie, don’t go before you get me a large cup of chocolate…What fun I’ll have trimming hats!” Jeanne has thus played the archetypical role of the nagging wife, bothering her husband for the sake of bothering her husband, only to get what she wants in the end, to be alone and deal with her “feminine activities.” However, the banality of what she considers to be entertainment – i.e., trimming hats – re-enforces the absurdity of the entire gender roles that have led to the conflict. Namely, Henri and Jeanne enact their gender roles on what may be called an unconscious social level, informed by the greater social discourse of the roles they are to play, and thereby following through. What is lacking is precisely a moment of self-critical reflection on the argument itself, and it is arguably Bernard’s very text that provides such a moment of self-critical reflection, demonstrating the lack of understanding of the gender performances being carried out.

Hence, as Lodge and Wood note about this approach, “it is in this sense that gender roles are performed and are cited whenever gender distinctions are required for social conformity, or class or sexual solidarity.” (p. 21) Taking this approach to Bernard’s text, it is precisely social conformity that is created through a superficial conflict between the sexes: such a conflict makes a smooth running relationship where each partner gets what they desire. However, what Bernard problematizes is exactly this desire itself, as mentioned above: arguably, the long bickering dialogue means that Henri and Jeanne do not themselves know what they want, and are merely performing their socially conferred functions. Hence, Bernard arguably gives the audience a more complex version of a standard social critique of gender theory in the husband-wife context, summarized as follows: “Husbands move to ease conflict by adopting gender ideologies designed to please their wives, but do not necessarily change behaviors.” (Rice, 2001, p. 418) Instead, for Bernard, meaningless conflict itself is the gender ideology that is stake, since this meaningless conflict is based on a social dichotomy of the relations men and women play.

Bernard therefore does not merely show men and women enacting their socially conferred gender roles. He shows that these roles are based on a conflict that surprisingly leads to a conformity, in so far as those participating in these roles are not conscious of what they are doing. Accordingly, Bernard shows how individual decisions are structured by the social discourse, defining distinct niches that subjects should play according to the social construct of gender.

Works Cited

Bernard, T. I’m Going! A Comedy in One Act.

Lodge, D. & Wood, N. (1988). “Introduction” in D. Lodge & N. Woods (eds.) Modern

Criticism & Theory: A Reader. Harlow, UK: Pearson. pp. 1-30.

Rice, J. (2001). “Family Roles and Patterns.” In Worrel, J. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of

Women and Gender. London, UK : Harcourt. pp. 411-424.