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Patriarchy is the root of all evils. This statement, though dramatic, seems to be true at the very least within the novel, “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman”. Beginning with the excerpt (given in class) from the last chapter in the novel and working backwards, the narrator hints that, from patriarchy is stemmed an assortment of issues which the protagonist must struggle to make sense of, the most notable being the effects of abandonment and parent-child relationships. The reader is invited to explore these vague yet prudent themes, and are asked to question both what the “right” views regarding these themes are, and, of course, if detection truly is an unsuitable job for a woman.
Throughout the course of the novel we learn much about Cordelia, the protagonist, and even more about her childhood. Abandoned and recalled by her father again and again, she holds a deep complex which makes her question herself often, and makes her look to others constantly for her sense of self. We as readers must question the father’s actions, their impact on Cordelia, and how they might be translated into a more universal theme. “(Daddy’s) little fascist,” (93) was very much neglected in her youth. Letters to her father concerning her education went unanswered until such time as “Daddy” found a new use for his daughter. At age sixteen, when the letter sent by Cordelia’s school was finally answered, her father took her out of the formal education system and used her from that time onwards for his own purposes. She “began her wandering life as cook, nurse, messenger and general camp follower […]” (95) for her father’s cause. This action very much parallels the attitude towards women in the traditional patriarchal society wherein girls are taken out of school to take care of their families until such time as they are married. This in mind, the echo of tradition in Cordelia’s circumstance suggests that the harm which came to Cordelia because of this action taken by her father is equitable to the harm committed against women through the patriarchal system’s doctrine. The moral is the same if the story is not – a young woman with promise looses everything to resume her place in society’s hierarchy.
During the times that “Daddy” was absent, Cordelia was both happy and upset by this perceived lack in her life. Her father’s absence instilled in her, and noted above, a strong need for encouragement and acceptance by others, almost to the point where it is an utterly hypnotising requirement. Cordelia gets emotionally high on acceptance, as exhibited in her almost-distraction during her conversation with Superintendant Dalgliesh (307-322), and, more specifically, the excerpt provided in class (308). Without the Superintendant saying anything at all, he has Cordelia almost under his spell. He is a father figure to her, thanks in no small part by Bernie’s apparent worship of him. By simply meeting him, and being in his comforting, assuring presence she is overwhelmed by a feeling of disadvantage, for, as in the case with a similar event – the punt ride around Cambridge – her need for acceptance intrudes upon her ability to stay true to herself. The narrator as quoting Cordelia notes that because he sounds “gentle and kind”, she finds herself having to remind herself how Dalgliesh had treated Bernie – that is, the exact same way her father had treated her (308). Just as Cordelia experienced with her father, while Bernie was useful, he was kept – once he had served his purpose, he was discarded. She then must ensure her feelings of needing to be accepted do not get in the way of her being true to herself, just as, in a broader sense, women must not need acceptance from men to be sure of their own abilities.
Patriarchy is a system which is long outdated. Equality exists between men and women, and rightly so. The question remains, however, to what level our reliance on others is based upon our need for acceptance as human beings versus women’s need for acceptance in a man’s world. In “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman”, the reader sees Cordelia struggle with the concept of acceptance, both within a man’s world and within a human’s world, and with her grasp of who she herself wishes to be. If it is Cordelia’s wish to be a detective, nothing should stand in her way of doing so: not society telling her she cannot, not a dated Superintendant treating her “as if” she were a responsible adult, and not a handsome couple on the river Themes. Most especially, she should not need her father to finally accept her for her to make her feel complete. It is this which holds the most water in her feelings of confliction between modern truths and dated ideas, and it is this which should be the least of Cordelia’s concerns when deciding whether her job is suitable for a woman. If anything at all, it should show her how she is clearly needed – and it is with her own permission that she should be needed to do anything at all.
James, P.D. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Canada: Seal Books, 2005.