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Forever a servant: a female’s life isn’t worth living, she thinks

August 16, 2011 13 comments

The Murderess (1903) by Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) 189 pages.

Alexandros Papadiamantis is one of the greatest Greek writers of his time. His work is mostly composed of short-stories and a few novels, among those The Murderess. I came across this author when I researched books for my EU Book Tour. How happy I am to have started that whimsical project! I would have never found this book on my own and it’s a real gem.

The Murderess is set in a rural island in Greece, the ones you imagine when you think about that country: sparkling turquoise sea, white houses, chapels, sheep and steep paths in the mountains. Alexandros Papadiamantis excels at describing the landscape, the scent of wild flowers and herbs under the sun, the pure springs, the shepherds with their sheep.

The main protagonist is Khadoula, also named Francoyannou or Yannou. She’s around 60. When the novel begins, she’s staying up at nights at her daughter’s house to watch her newborn grand-daughter. The deliverance has been difficult, both mother and baby are weak. During her sleepless nights, she starts thinking about her life:

Et là, à force de réfléchir et de rappeler en son esprit son existence entière, elle découvrait qu’elle n’avait jamais fait que vivre dans la servitude.

Jeune fille, elle avait été la domestique de ses parents. Une fois mariée, elle était devenue l’esclave de son mari – et pourtant, par l’effet de son propre caractère et de la faiblesse de l’autre, elle était en même temps sa tutrice. Quand ses enfants étaient nés, elle s’était faite leur servante; et maintenant qu’ils avaient à leur tour des enfants, voici qu’elle se trouvait asservie à ses petits-enfants.

And then, thinking hard and calling back in her mind her whole existence, she discovered she has only lived in servitude.

As a young girl, she had been her parents’ maid. Once married, she had become her husband’s slave and however, due to her own character and the weakness of his, she had also been his tutor. When her children were born, she had become their maid. And now that they had children too, she was enslaved to her grand-children.

Francoyannou was raised by a mean mother and a weak father who gave her as a dowry the less valuable of all their assets. Their avarice or perhaps simply their lack of love and generosity settled their daughter in poverty and obliged her to work hard to earn a living and build a house. They also married her to a simpleton. Her husband was so stupid he couldn’t calculate the amount of his wages and she had to interfere either to make sure he got paid correspondingly to the work done or that he didn’t drink their money. On this island, all the valuable men emigrate and are like dead to their families. They don’t write, they don’t come back and they never send money. Francoyannou’s two older sons emigrated and thus are of no support. She had to work hard to earn the dowry she gave to her daughter Delcharo, the one who just had a baby. And “what for?”, she thinks when she sees her loud and incapable son-in-law. She knows she can’t afford the same dowry for her two other daughters; they’ll have to be spinsters.

Looking back on her life, she doubts her life was worth the effort. She comes to a simple conclusion: being a woman is a curse, having daughters is a malediction. She looks at her grand-daughter and thinks that if she died now, her parents would be freed from raising her and sacrificing for her dowry. If she died now, she wouldn’t have to go through that life of servitude, she’d be an angel in the Kingdom of God. If Francoyannou helped fate and smothered the baby, it would look like she choked to death. One thought leading to the other, Francoyannou becomes sure it is the best solution. She kills the baby. She feels empowered by her action. For the first time maybe, she leads her life instead of reacting and adjusting to events and other people. It’s exhilarating. Will this baby be her only victim?

Francoyannou is a complex character. She’s a respected member of her community for her capacities, her compassion and the help she provides to others. Indeed, Francoyannou knows all kinds of herbs and works as a midwife. She can provoke abortions and wishes she could find a sterility herb. She’s everywhere, compassionate, healing neighbours, helping with laundry, working all the time to make money and survive. She’s also very religious and superstitious. She’s certain that Jesus sent her signs, approving her lethal deeds. She’s not crazy, she’s practical. Her compassion makes her cross the line.

Alexandros Papadiamantis wrote a fantastic novel on the condition of the women of that time. They aren’t really considered as citizens and yet do all the job, running households, working very hard and helping each other. They are never thanked or respected for it. Papadiamantis denounces the side-effects of emigration. It is a catastrophe for this island as it empties the native land from the most valuable men. Only the lazy, the stupid and the drunkards remain, making bad husbands and fathers. Only the shepherds are pictured as nice men. I also wonder why these emigrants never came back or sent money. Usually emigrants send money back home, helping the local economy. It was the case for Italian emigrants in America or Algerians in France.

Papadiamantis also questions old customs and the yoke they put on families. Dowries are above their means and yet mandatory for your daughter to get married. It costs them everything and prevents them from enriching from one generation to the other. As a consequence, having too many daughters is a curse. I had never heard of such a custom in a European country at the beginning of the 20th C and not among poor people. For me the question of dowries was linked to the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. I’ve heard of such customs in India though.

Papadiamantis also depicts very well the parallel economy driven by poverty. Women have no profession but do many small jobs to earn money or get paid in nature.

Despite her horrible actions, I could understand and pity Francoyannou. It’s so desperate. Of course, murder is condemnable but Papadiamantis shows very well the net of obligations that led her to this horrible conclusion: Girls are a burden for their families and will live as servants all their life. Girls’ lives aren’t worth living. Sad and chilling. I highly recommend it.

Here is another review by Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes.

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