The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle: A Martyr or a Survivor?
The novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors written by the Irish author Roddy Doyle describes the life of a woman from a poor family from her childhood up to the present. Paula Spencer, the main character of the book, suffers from constant domestic battery by her husband, yet she prefers staying with the abuser without doing anything to stop the violence. Finally, her misery ends with the death of her husband. Thus, who is she, Paula Spencer, a martyr or a survivor? The present essay is an attempt to answer the question, proving that the heroine is a survivor.
In order to better see the main idea of the novel, the reader should take into consideration the author’s personality, philosophy, and background. The Irish writer Roddy Doyle started his life journey in May 1958 in Dublin. Having graduated from the college in his native city, Doyle became a teacher of geography and English in Kilbarrak for the next fourteen years (“Roddy Doyle”). Only in 1993, he started to write novels on a full-time basis. Along with writing, he founded a writing center in 2009, going under the creative name “Fighting Words”. The mission of the center was to inspire children from not very wealthy families to open and develop writing talents (Crown). As for the artist’s career, it began in 1997 with The Commitments, the novel that gained a wide recognition and later was turned into a film. In 1993, Doyle received the Booker Prize, the British highest award in literature for his work Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The novel made him known as a brilliant Irish humorist (“Roddy Doyle”).
The majority of literature critics would agree that Roddy Doyle has his original writing style. In his books, Doyle describes a troubled life of ordinary Irish people, using a strong and slangy language of town suburbs. The lambent humor and sincerity are two traits that make Roddy Doyle’s prose stand out of the rest of postcolonial writers.
Among all literature works by Roddy Doyle, the novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors deserves a special and detailed study. The book was published in 1996 and immediately hit the second position in the list of bestsellers of Great Britain. Moreover, the story has been keeping up attracting close attention of both readers and critics. In fact, based on this novel, in 1994 the Irish RTE Television broadcasted a range of miniseries under the name “Family”. In addition, in 2001 the novel provided the basis for an opera directed by G. Cassiers; while Kris Defoort wrote the music. Since its world premiere, the opera had traveled extensively before being shown in Irish Gaiety Theatre two years later (Crown, “Roddy Doyle: A Life in Writing”).
The central character of the novel is Paula Spencer, an abused woman, a mother of four children, an alcoholic, a housecleaner, and finally a widow. For the first twenty four chapters, the narrative describes life of the heroine from her childhood, passing through the teenage years, wedding with Charlo Spencer, and learning out about his death. In twenty fifth chapter, the novel reaches its culmination point that is the first burst of violence from Charlo. Twenty years later, she still remembered:
I said, Make your own fuckin’ tea. That was what happened. Exactly what happened. I provoked him. I always provoked him. I was always to blame. I should have kept my mouth shut. But that didn’t work either. I could provoke him that way as well. Not talking. Talking. Looking at him. Not looking at him. Looking at him that way. Not looking at him that way. Looking and talking. Sitting, standing. Being in the room. Being. What happened? I don’t know. (Doyle 271)
In order to make the reader understand the main character’s motives, her train of thoughts, and feelings, the author chooses the style of a stream of consciousness. For this reasoning, the novel is written in the first person. Since the story has only Paula’s perspective, the reader does not know why a loving husband would turn out to be a cruel bully and robber. Therefore, the author aims to convey sympathy towards Paula.
As the stream of consciousness, the writing style has a nonlinear order of events and thoughts, which suits the subject idea well since the heroine herself cannot recall her past in a proper order. Memories are missing due to the endless beating and alcoholism: “It’s all a mess – there’s no order or sequence. I have dates, a beginning and an end, but the years in between won’t fall into place… I missed the 80s. I haven’t a clue” (Doyle 334).
Another trait worth mentioning is that the narrative flow is fragmented and chopped. Since sentences are short, a whole page often looks like being made of a couple of words: “We were in love. I was mad about him. He was mad about me; he was. He loved me. He loved being with me. We laughed. He cuddled up to me…” (Doyle 94).
As a matter of a fact, Roddy Doyle uses three tricks to keep the reader’s attention. To start with, since the narrative is nonlinear, events come in a random order, skipping from the past to the future, from the present to the past, and vice versa. The trick intrigues readers, making them less depressed over the darkest moments of Paula’s life.
Another way to maintain the reader’s interest in reading the novel was to describe intimate moments of the heroine’s personal life. For example, the narrator gives readers a memory when Paula and her soon-to-be husband Charlo made love for the first time. As Paula still remembers, they were in some fields, both being drunk, especially the young girl whom she was at that time. The woman still could tell what smells were like in that field: the stink of fallen leaves and animals’ excrements. Afterward, she felt scared and guilty.
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In general, in spite of such a dark theme, the novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors appears to be spiced with genuine Doyle’s humor (Gordon). That subtle irony makes the story more vivid and interesting, filling it with warmth. For instance, when Paula and her friend Frieda were both almost kids, they started seeing guys. Young Paula was jealous that her friend got two love-bites and she did not get any since her “fella” did not know how to give her one. However, Paula had to admit that her “mammy” would have killed her for that. Reading the passage, the reader cannot but feel warmth and tenderness towards the kid as she was at the time.
Considering the inner psychologism of the main character of The Woman Who Walked into Doors, there appear two opinions concerning what the novel is about. On the one hand, one might think the novel represents a story about domestic violence narrated by the victim. On the other hand, the author describes a struggle and survival of a woman who fell in love with a man who turned out to be an abuser. In truth, both ideas have valid points and justifications for their reasoning.
According to the definition of American Psychiatric Association, a person who has the victim complex seeks out suffering because it meets a desire to be a martyr, to avoid responsibility, or to feed his or her psychological needs. As American Anthropologist Journal states, one type of the victim’s (martyr’s) behavior involves free-will suffering in the name of love or duty. In particular, this line of conduct can be observed in women from poor or troubled families and in relationships with abusive partners (Lewis 605).
From that point of view, Paula Spencer definitely has a complex of martyr. Even the title of the novel comes from an incident with her abusive husband Charlo Spencer. When the man hit her and then asked how she had got a bruise all over her face, Paula replied she walked into a door. At other time, Charlo beat Paula to the point she lost consciousness. When she recovered from a blow, she saw her husband standing over her body. Skipping Paula’s eyes, he told her she had fallen. Even now that the woman looks back at the incident, she describes Charlo as worrying and full of love.
In that way, she developed excuses to defend Charlo’s behavior, explaining to her friends and family “I walked into a door”, “I fell”, and so on. In fact, in that way she had been defending her husband for twenty years until at some moment love turned into a form of addiction. Paula admitted that she only felt something when Charlo was looking at her, smiling, or hitting her.
The ordinary logic fails to understand why Paula would not leave her tormenter if she was so miserable and why it took the heroine so long to stop being a victim of abuse.
The first probable reason is that the heroine truly believed her husband loved her. Thus, she was suffering in the name of love as a typical martyr. Besides, she could not help herself, but to love him as well. Even when the Guard officer came to her door bringing news that her husband had been murdered during the arrest, she admitted to herself she still had feelings for Charlo. Paula revealed that she had fallen in love with Charlo before she met him and never stopped loving him. The heroine loved him when she was throwing him out and when the Guard officer brought her the news about Charlo’s death. The woman remembers the instant she saw him she knew that was love. She nearly expected for him to be a bad man as the present Paula admits.
Another sound reason for Paula’s martyr behavior is her low self-esteem. She truly had a valid point in feeling as unworthy. During Paula’s teen age, as she had been passing through a vulnerable stage from being a child to becoming a girl, “fellas” from the school, even her father and brother, humiliatingly called her being of easy virtue.
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Where I grew up […] you were a slut or a tight bitch, one or the other, if you were a girl – and usually before you were thirteen. If you were good-looking; if you grew up fast. If you had a sexy walk; if you had clean hair, if you had dirty hair. If you wore platform shoes, and if you didn’t. Anything could get you called a slut. My father called me a slut the first time I put on mascara. (Doyle 43)
At that point, in order to underline the near absurdity of the whole situation, the tone of the narrative becomes ironic and a little bitter: “You were a slut if you let fellas put their tongues in your mouth and you were a tight bitch if you didn’t – but you could also be a slut if you didn’t. One or the other, sometimes both. There was no escape; that was you” (Doyle 43).
Therefore, in addition to emotional and physical changes, Paula had to face secondary school. Her nice and full of kindness childhood ended up instantly when she was placed in a class for slow children in the secondary school. Though in elementary school she considered herself as clever, in upper classes that sense died because of being constantly harassed and name-called. As everybody treated Paula the same way, she started feeling unworthy and dirty. The young girl was ashamed of herself and could not even tell anybody what she thought and how she felt about it. The present Paula remembers that she even smelled herself. If it was her odor, young Paula hoped she could wash it off and see things go back to normal and men leave her alone.
Results of the insulting behavior appeared later when she became pregnant with her first child Nicola. As physical changes made her feel less attractive, she began to drink. What had started as few cocktails at bars during the week-end developed into alcoholism. At that point, the heroine knew her husband was a devil, but hoped he would change and be the man she had fallen in love with.
The second breaking point of the book happened when Paula sensed that Charlo had a clear intention to turn his aggression towards her daughter Nicola:
It wasn’t the way men look at women – I could nearly have understood that. It was almost natural, something to be careful about. But it was sheer hate. It was clear in his face. He wanted to ruin her, to kill her. His own daughter. […]He wanted to hurt my daughter. His daughter. Because he could. There was evil in him. I wasn’t going to pretend anymore. Things were falling apart and it didn’t matter. (Doyle 134)
That was when Paula proved to be not just a survivor, but a fierce fighter. Acting without any hesitation, the woman hit her husband’s head with the frying pan and with her daughter’s assistance threw him out of the house. Though Mrs. Paula Spencer definitely is no perfection or saint, she is indeed a survivor. Although the woman had been married to her tormenting husband for twenty years, she did find the courage to refuse being a victim anymore. It was just like in the secondary school when she hardened up and started to fight back in reply. At this point, the main character had all rights to be viewed as far more than a martyr. Paula revealed that school made her rough and hard. In higher classes, the heroine had learnt how to fight and act dirty. She made a good fighter as the woman admitted.
In spite of her alcohol addiction and being the wife of a beater, Paula Spencer is trying to make a good mother to children. The woman is adamant to ensure her children have a better life. Once, when Charlo leaved the house, she helped her younger daughter to make homework. Paula was proud of hearing her daughter’s brain working and seeing her even and neat writing. As the woman wondered where Lienne had gotten the brains from, she assumed: “Maybe from me”.
The last phrase gives the reader a little hint about Paula being a survivor. The last sentence means Paula does not consider herself as a dirty and unworthy girl anymore as it was in her higher classes. The heroine was constantly told she was stupid, but underneath the beating and the poverty, there is still a bright and witty girl she once was.
It should be noted once again that Roddy Doyle does not make the heroine a saint. In spite of her true fondness for her children, Paula reconciles it with her addiction to alcohol even after Charlo’s death. The intention to restrict the drinking appeared only after an incident with Jack, her youngest son. Paula had to read him a bedtime fairytale about a milkman, while her only desire was to get drunk. Jack took pleasure in correcting Paula when she made slips in pronunciation and reading words and it drove her crazy. With Jack standing in between her and what she craved the most, the woman had a hard time coping with her anger and paranoia:
I can hardly see the words. Sometimes. My eyes are glueing. I have to scream. My joints are stuck. I’m in agony. I’m made of sore cement. I want to hit him, he’s so fuckin’ vigilant. Waiting for mistakes; the story means nothing to him. He doesn’t care about me. (Doyle 82)
The passage shows to what extent alcoholism has become a part of the woman and her life. However, the reader has to give Paula some credit as it was really hard to give up her alcoholic addictions, but she was trying to make it right with her children.
As for Paula’s living in hell for so many years without pressing charges or complaining to social services, the reason consisted in the fact that she was simply afraid of Charlo. Whenever she got to a hospital, she would deny talking about her injuries and pain with the medical stuff. Paula was used to hiding her sufferings at the hands of her abusive husband because Charlo made her believe the disclosure would lead to even more abuse.
In fact, the author made it clear that the society was not interested in asking questions and revealing the truth as well. As she was on the hospital bed, everybody refused to look at her:
None of them looked at me.
– As right as rain
None of them saw. Tut tut tut and another prescription. More pills to wash down… (Doyle 127)
Reading the novel, the reader might have an impression that the heroine has lost the connection with the outer world. Ironically, only when Charlo got killed during his arrest, she finally started feeling alive. Though Paula still loved her vicious husband, she certainly felt relieved.
—Shot, I said.
Now I shrugged.
We all started laughing.
—Shot, I said it again. —Can you believe it?
We were still laughing. Denise closed the kitchen door so the kids outside couldn’t hear us; it wouldn’t have sounded proper. It was a bit indecent, laughing at the way your husband had got himself killed. (Doyle 56)
Another proof that Paula Spencer was a survivor is that she was an optimist. The heroine saw bright moments even in the dark. Therefore, as she talked with her two sisters about their father, Paula saw her parent in brighter colors than her sisters:
– He was nice, she said – He sang a lot, didn’t he?
– So did Hitler.
– Ah, stop Carmel, will yeh, I said. – Is that the best you can do?
– I know what you’re up to, she said.
– I know.
– Rewriting history, she said (Doyle 50)
In the end, Paula Spencer understands a true nature of her marriage with Charlo: she wedded a man just like her father to seek his approval. Meanwhile, Paula’s father got emotionally abusive with age to the point he erased any good memory Paula had of him. Paula remembers she started to feel estrangement with her father at the wedding. The woman even refused to call him father in her mind. Her daddy became a stranger, another man whom she could not trust anymore. She could picture the man, smell him, yet he was not real to Paula. Final disappointment over her father occurred when he had not come to the christening of her daughter due to the cold. It was as if this new man had killed the father Paula knew when she was a child.
As the reader can see, all men she encountered in life were either abusive or egocentric. That gives her hard time to trust in people and have faith in kindness. Much later, the present Paula realizes it was pointless to please them since such people would never be pleased with anyone.
Having read the novel, the reader may come to a conclusion that the main problem of the heroine was her fear and guilt. Younger Paula felt guilty for becoming a woman so early and she was afraid of her family’s disapproval. As a mother, she felt guilty for her alcohol addiction and abuse of her children; as a wife, she feared Charlo’s beating. Besides, Paula was ashamed to be considered the wife of a robber and murderer in face of the society and family.
As a result, the woman was seeking protection all her life. To feel like respectable woman and avoid harassing, she married Charlo. To feel oblivious about the outer world, including her husband’s abuse and poverty, Paula drank. Closing eyes to everything and refusing to see truth was a form of self-preservation.
However, it is the final deed that counts. In the end, the heroine realizes she has had enough of being a victim. Though throwing Charlo out and becoming a widow has not actually brought peace into Paula’s home, she has certainly broken the ice with her actions. The woman has gotten rid of her vicious abuser and has no regret over it.
The novel ends up with the phrase “It was a great feeling. I’d done something good” (Doyle 145). In this, she is certain as the heroine admits. If she were a martyr, she would have regretted throwing out her husband. As she is a survivor, Paula accepts her action as a given. The phrase conveys a sense of hope and brighter future for Paula and her children.
Summing up all her past and present deeds, understanding her motives and feelings, the right answer to the question about who Paula Spencer is in the book would definitely be a survivor.