‘A Wicked Woman’ by Jack London: Short Story Analysis
‘A Wicked Woman’ is an Edwardian Era realistic short story published in 1900 by American short story writer and famous novelist Jack London. Jack London was one of the first internationally known American writers. If one looks closely at the text, we find the short story is sexist and male-centric. The description is simple, romantic, but highly male-centric that displays women and their feelings as trifles in the world’s workings. Loretta, the main protagonist, ends her relationship with her old lover Billy. She is sent by her sister Daisy and her sister’s husband, Captain Kitt, to the Hemingway residence to spend some time away from the jilted lover Billy. The latter is trying ever so hard to maintain contact with Loretta and force her to marry him. At the Hemingway residence, Mrs. Hemingway decides that Loretta is a gentle and straightforward soul worthy of a good husband. She decides to introduce her old lover Edward Bashford or Ned (his nickname) to Loretta. Mrs. Hemingway tries to make Ned fall in love with Loretta and succeeds dramatically. The story must have sounded very romantic in the Edwardian Era. But we find that the story is not centered on the woman protagonist. There is a great irony in the title ‘A Wicked Woman’, which hints at male dominance over women’s sexual and romantic life in the late nineteenth century.
Notice the many ways Loretta’s feelings and emotions over matters are directed by wills which are not hers:
- When she breaks up with Billy, Daisy, her sister, takes her to her married home, and Captain Kitt finds her continuous crying is creating a nuisance in his house. He was not getting enough sleep because of it all.
- Captain Kitt feels that Loretta is too young to get married, and so he parcels her off to the Hemingway residence for a holiday to come to her senses. He wishes that Loretta should not get married at all and should only help Daisy with the housework. He basically wanted Loretta to be like his wife, an unpaid servant.
- The moment Mrs. Hemingway realizes that Loretta was a wonderfully simple girl who was guileless and innocent, she decides to get Ned to spend more time with Loretta in their home. Mrs. Hemingway, in other words, is plotting Loretta’s future for her. Before she was married to Mr. Hemingway, Mrs. Hemingway was courted by Ned, and she was sorry that she had to break his heart and marry another. Since then, she was looking out for a prospective bride to be the future Mrs. Ned Bashford.
- When Loretta tells Ned vaguely that she had done something terrible with Billy and that she was a wicked woman, Ned jumps to the conclusion that Lorretta and Billy had had a physical relationship. The MCP or Male Chauvinist Pig Ned cannot accept this fact and commands the crying Loretta to marry Billy because she had been intimate with him.
- When Ned realizes that Loretta had only kissed Billy and done nothing else, her purity in his eyes is still intact, so he decides to marry her.
- Ned is an ardent follower of Nietzsche and ancient Greek philosophy. He believes that the Greeks worshipped outward appearances because they were profound thinkers and intellectuals and accepted the world as presented to them. Like the German philosopher Nietzsche, Ned believes that one must not go by outward appearances because the world’s analytic methods could not measure the world’s values and human society. One had to look for some other means of analysis. In other words, he is a person who knows that anything superficially beautiful, innocent, and simple need not necessarily mean that it is so within. But like the Greek philosophers and Nietzsche, he believes that he must accept everyone as they present themselves because that was the way the world worked. Until suitable measurements were found to analyze the different aspects of human values, Ned would always go by superficiality. He does so with Loretta, whom Mrs. Hemingway portrays as a simple, innocent, and guileless young lady who would do well as Ned’s little pet more than a wife of equal standing in his heart.
Because of this and many other such points, one cannot avoid the fact that sexism is at the heart of this story, which shall not go down very well with most readers of today. The whole story is set in the region of Santa Clara, which is in California. The characters are all upper middle class or even the elite of society who have the time and wit to spend their time match-making for young people. Notice how Loretta comes to her own that is when she is in the Hemingway’s residence, she suddenly develops her personality, wishes, and will. This new personality is devoid of her relationship with Billy and her association with her sister Daisy, who has been overshadowing Loretta’s persona. This is the plus point in the story of how a dependent woman becomes independent and starts finding her place in the world. But then comes the final letter of Billy, where he is desperate for Loretta. Thinking that he could bully her, he attacks her in the area which is her weakest point and the weakest point of whole humankind to date – her virginity.
Loretta is a silly woman who has grown up not knowing that when you kiss a man, that does not necessarily mean that you have done something wrong, let alone that you are then obliged to marry the same man because of the kiss. That is ridiculous. Women are sexual creatures, more than even men are. They need to express their sexuality to the people they love. However, Jack London makes a point which is evident at the outset, that Loretta’s success or failure in getting a good husband like Ned depended:
- Not on her newly developed good and wholesome personality at the Hemingway’s residence.
- Not on her charms, good nature, or innocence.
No, it depended on the cliched topic of whether Loretta was a virgin. Billy penned a letter to Loretta trying to convince the innocent one that if she did not marry him, she would be an evil woman because, in his opinion, their kisses were not correct and not befitting to be spoken aloud. In other words, he wanted to make the kisses and their previous amour public. Even today, a woman finds it difficult to admit to an affair publicly. She has to endure the jibes of people who enjoy harassing single women about maidenhood and relationships. I can well imagine what Loretta went through as she read the letter written by the conceited Billy. She cried, and lucky for her, poured out her heart to Ned personally and privately. Jack London has a way with romance, and the romantic confession of love between Ned and Loretta is beautifully penned but sexist all the same. Ned digs under the surface of Loretta’s sobs, trying to know what she and Billy did with each other that Loretta felt that she was sullied and a ‘wicked woman’.
From the time of the Bible, we have been keeping on using the phrase ‘wicked woman’ to indicate a woman who is liberal with her sexual favors with others. The title of the story is ‘A Wicked Woman’, and it is ironic because women like Loretta are always made to believe that if they act out their sexuality, they are wicked. This guilt complex of women towards their bodies has got to go, especially in backward countries like mine. Ned did not directly ask Loretta whether she had sex with Billy, but we know that is what he is hinting at. For a man who says he is a follower of Nietzsche, Ned seems like a parody on the very idea. Also, note that when one says he is a ‘Greek’, being Greek means being proud. Proud of the Greek intellectual ancestors and their accomplishments, from Aristotle and his theories to his followers. So, mind you, Ned was nothing else but just a proud man. He was proud of his bachelorhood, proud that even after having a romantic affair with Mrs. Hemingway, his reputation was not sullied, proud that he could woo a young girl so quickly, and proud of the fact that he was a well-placed male in society. I have always been a feminist throughout my life, ever since I realized my father had abandoned me at birth because I was a girl child. After that, the only father figure in my life has been books. To know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir on my blog’s products page. The book is titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. It was also a 2020 DBW Awards Finalist in Non-Fiction.
Here are the points in the development of the final confession of Loretta and Ned till they realize that Loretta is pure as they come and so is capable of being married to Ned:
- Ned is ready to confess his love for Loretta, but she says it is too late, which startles Ned because he had never known who this Billy fellow was. He tries in a gentlemanly way to pry it out of Loretta whether this Billy was a brother or someone else. He is disappointed to realize that Billy was an ex-lover of his woman of interest.
- When Loretta tells Ned that she did not love Billy and did not want to marry Billy anymore, Ned says it was a fine enough thing because women through the ages kept on breaking men’s hearts. Notice how Loretta has a more sacred disposition to her past lover and does not like anything ill to be said of him, indicative that they may have parted, but that did not mean that Billy was a bad man. However, Ned is sarcastic about the whole idea. He demeans women by saying that they repeatedly broke men’s hearts, indicating that he felt that women were not serious where love was concerned.
- Loretta, because of the kisses, felt that she ‘ought’ to marry Billy. The word ‘ought’ hits Ned hard in the stomach because that word denotes being indebted or obliged to someone based on sound human principles. This makes Ned think that Billy must have had an intimate sexual relationship with Loretta.
- Ned becomes angrier as the sobbing continues. He calls Billy a scoundrel because only a scoundrel could have a sexual affair with a young, innocent woman before her marriage and then try to malign her name or harass her. Ned, however, felt that since Billy and Loretta had a physical relationship, they should get married. He was even ready to arrange the whole affair. He aimed to be chivalrous, but he comes across as a narrow-minded man to us twenty-first-century readers.
- When he realizes that Billy has been bullying the innocent Loretta and only kissed, he is then ready to marry her.
- In the end, they embrace each other and kiss. Billy had told Loretta that it was the custom for a woman who kisses a man to marry him. Loretta is hopeful that since she has now kissed Ned, she will have to marry him, which is what Ned wants. Notice where persuasion, harassment, and amour failed, Billy resorted to the age-old method for getting innocent Loretta to marry him, and that was through ‘social norms and customs.’ He felt she could refuse him, but could she refuse society?
The story titled ‘A Wicked Woman’ ends happily. Loretta is deemed not a wicked woman at all. In fact. Billy proves to be a wicked man as he bullied Loretta into marrying him. One comes away from this short story with mixed feelings about the social norms of lovemaking and courtship in America during the Edwardian Era. Hopefully, we have evolved into something better.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story penned by American writer Jack London. I have always loved Jack London’s works and recommend his classic books to my students. If you are an educator and wish to get your students to read the classics, you can check out my multi-award-winning how-to book Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. You can buy it on the products page of my blog.
I hope to read, review, and analyze more American novels, short stories, essays, and non-fiction books in the coming days till January. I wish to celebrate American literature till inauguration day. So, if you are looking for more American bookish content, this is the site you must keep watching.
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