Harnessing Stereotypes – Woolf and Steinbeck (7/8)

The inclusion of Steinbeck’s “The Harness” alongside Woolf’s “Women Must Weep- Or Unite Against War” feels conflicting. Where Woolf’s essay withholds few punches against male-dominance culture, “The Harness” responds with an overtly literal symbol in the inverse: the protagonist (Peter) is forced to wear a “web harness that pull[s] his shoulders back” (Steinbeck 744), a contraption that his wife Emma forces him to wear as to appear to be stately and masculine. This literal imprisonment is cast off when Emma, the stereotypical sickly, frail wife, dies from one of her many illnesses. Peter swears to never wear it again, professing his newfound freedom in anger-fueled chords reminiscent of a man starving: “I’m hungry for everything, for a lot of everything” (Steinbeck 745). While both pieces briefly touch on a woman’s domestic influence, “The Harness” slides the heavier weight to a woman’s control over men. For Peter, Emma’s death meant freedom in a myriad of senses. He no longer wears the harness, he’s free to drink and trudge in mud, and he can finally gamble on his sweet pea crop. 

Having read Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” which is also set in Salinas Valley, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Steinbeck generally portrays gender this way. In the aforementioned text, the naive protagonist is painted sympathetically when a strange man discards the flowers she holds in such high esteem, leaving them abandoned on the side of the road. In this piece, Steinbeck shows the plight of a woman’s desire to bring about peace, to encourage others to plant seeds that might grow into something beautiful, but it’s left in a heap by the men who purely seek transaction. Her innocence likewise thrown away. “The Harness” does little to generate sympathy for Emma, though, aside from being perpetually sick. Perhaps Steinbeck sought to portray complicated relationships, instead. For Emma may tightly lock down her partner, but Peter’s new opportunities after her death end in sadness, the character reflecting that he ought to install lights in his house because “Emma always wanted electric lights” (Steinbeck 749). Peter wants to make his wife happy just once more. He misses her because he truly loved her, despite feelings of confinement.  

A more metaphorical reading might posit that there was never a harness whatsoever. Emma’s requests don’t seem especially ridiculous, outside of wearing the harness, of course. She wanted him to stand up straight, be respectful in public, limit his use of alcohol, keep the floors clean, and operate judiciously with his crops–their sole income. Perhaps psychologically, Peter felt as though he wore a harness, since his impulses scraped against her desires. In this lens, Peter casts off the harness as one might cast off a ring, never to put it on again but always to know that some part of their person will always belong to someone else.  

If Woolf and Steinbeck seem to clash here, it’s because they do. But they also converge on many points. They both stress the importance of influence in the domestic relationship. They both seek to dismantle unfair control. And they both attempt to deconstruct enforced gender roles.  


The psychological differences between men and women are on full display here. In literature I've noticed women comparing marriage to slavery and having loss over their body. For men, it's being 'tied down', a 'noose', or 'the old ball and chain', all of which are imprisionment metaphors. If women fear loss of selves, men seem to fear entrapment and 'freedom of self' being taken away. But the way society dictated the relationships between men and women it was only natural. Women were not allowed to have well paying jobs, putting the sole focus on men and their employment. This put more pressure on men and many may have felt like women were a 'mostly useless burden' they had to support, which could lead to resentment and contempt that women could not stand on their own two feet. This also took away the self-esteem of women who could only find meaning in marriage and child rearing. Having a healthy and stable marriage was certainly more difficult when societal norms caused an imbalence between two partners that would respect each other more as equals. Certainly there was more than one reason for unhappy marriage, but societal roots of the time needed their fair share of blame.