My Body and My Mind: Discovery of Sexuality in Jenny by Sigrid Undset

© Valdmir, Eternal Rome, oil on canvas, 2019

Love and intimacy are two important components in a romantic relationship. It is easy for us to discuss these topics openly nowadays, but not so much in early 20th century. Jenny, written by Sigrid Undset and published in 1911, highlighted entanglement of affection and desire. Jenny Winge, an aspiring Norwegian artist, met Helge, who is also young Norwegian artist. Both of them were finding inspirations in Rome, where they fell in love and Jenny first encounters a tension between her mind and body. Apart from that, Jenny also goes through events that were seen as disastrous for a woman at that time. A love affair, premarital pregnancy, mental illness etc. These hardships leads to Jenny’s tragedy at the end where she committed suicide.

Sunlight on the floor

© Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior, Sunlight on the Floor, oil on canvas, 1906

Jenny’s journey fills with puddles and pebbles. To overcome one heartbreak after another has led her to severe depression. Mental illness was a rare topic in early 1900s. If you act any different, you would just be considered insane or crazy. While Jenny’s illness came from multiple trauma, her friends simply identified her melancholy as sadness. The truth is, no one is forever happy, we all get sad sometimes, but how do sadness lead to suicide? This also links to another point, that the purpose of life of a woman depends heavily on others. Losing the ones she loved, Jenny was in an emotional and creativity slump. She lost her meaning of life, and the ability to do the one thing she likes – painting.

In early 20th century, feminism was on the rise, but yet to be mainstream. Thus, Undset’s work was rather controversial. Many criticized that Jenny exposes, degrades and disrespects women. On the other hand, the piece also gave voice to a group of supressed women, who had to deny their bodies their whole lives. Undset is responding to mother nature rather than exposing femininity. First wave feminism concerns women’s rights, and the second wave draws focus on equality between men and women. Pleasure is not exclusive to male. Freeing women’s body is part of the second wave feminist movement, which is now. Undset was ahead of her time, hence many found her Jenny outrageous.

The position of women in our society is the highest ever in history nowadays. Women are not confined to just doing housework or taking care of the family. They can develop their own career, and have a family at the same time. While it is an advance from Jenny‘s time, feminism is not stopping. The latest trends has been circulating around women’s bodies. Colour inclusivity in the beauty industry, body positivity campaigns in the fashion industry; women are ever more conscious about their own bodies. Thus, it is possible that women’s sexuality will be the next topic feminists discuss. Undset’s work set  a beginning to such discussions.

by Sin Wai Ying Rachel

Categories: Books, Modernism and Postmodernism

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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