Feminist’s Novel Bends Experience to Fit Theory

As for Kyra, she manages to seem like a stilted and artificial construct—and irritatingly smug. Here’s how she explains why she was drawn to a previous love: “It was a vision we held in common … to create a socially transformative architecture that would sustain and nourish democratic values.” Ms. Gilligan seems to expect readers to admire Kyra on her own terms, especially when she bravely fights the patriarchy by questioning the structure of the traditional therapy-therapist relationship. “I can’t work this out with you if you continue to hide within this therapy structure,” Kyra tells her shrink. “You said that women have to change the structures.” Personally, I think Kyra sounds a little petulant, but apparently I’m wrong. She’s a trailblazer, an über-woman. The shrink admires her courage and learns from her, dutifully changing the structure of the therapy, bringing in details about her own life to rectify the power imbalance between patient and therapist.

We’re meant to see Kyra exactly as Kyra sees herself, which is exactly as Ms. Gilligan sees her. There’s no need for irony or doubt because Kyra and her adoring creator (and, by the end, Andreas) are wise, and naturally see the “truth.”


OF COURSE, A novel can be moralistic, which Kyra certainly is, and still be good. Tolstoy took that path, to say nothing of Jane Austen. But the message must be convincing, and in some ways that calls for a discipline more rigorous than social science. Unfortunately, Ms. Gilligan’s theories, when personified, seem reductive and simplistic, and will resonate only with those who already share both her Rousseau-inspired belief in the natural goodness of humanity and her New Age feminism.

The echo chamber in which Carol Gilligan operates has been in evidence for some time. In The Birth of Pleasure, she wrote of a narrative, “It is exquisitely observed, with all the nuance we have come to expect from four-year-old boys.” She wasn’t being ironic, not in the slightest. You see, she really likes four-year-old boys (they haven’t yet begun to shed their authentic selves). But a person has to be deeply out of touch with the world outside her own books to write “all the nuance we have come to expect from four-year-old boys” and mean a lot of nuance.


Adelle Waldman is a writer living in Brooklyn. She can be reached at books@observer.com.

Feminist’s Novel Bends Experience to Fit Theory