Like, I think, a lot of women readers, I have lately been discomfited by Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nora is pushing 40, single, and childless. She has several close friends, throws fun birthday parties, and makes “serious” art in her spare bedroom. She is also a devoted caretaker of her elderly relatives, and quite good, even excellent, at her elementary school teaching job. Nevertheless, Nora’s placid life is disturbed, from the inside out, when she becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, an artistic, intellectual couple and their precocious young son, who is in Nora’s third-grade class. The Shahids represent for Nora all she has missed out on: marriage, motherhood, and a career in the arts. She stews in a jealous rage toward these people, even as she attempts to attach herself to them; to vicariously experience a life so much richer and more satisfying, the book tells us, than her own.
What’s so bad about Nora? It’s not, as some reviewers have implied, that she is unlikeable in a way female characters ought not to be. The problem is that Nora is a stereotype. Messud has written her as a minimally-updated (Nora has a job, after all, and a sex life) version of a nineteenth century Old Maid: a caricature made nearly revolting by her alone-ness; a sort of leech on the breast of (re)productive womanhood. This is perhaps most deeply, disturbingly felt in a scene in which Nora, with only a moment’s hesitation, crawls into bed to cuddle with 8-year old Reza Shahid, acting “so like his mother,” almost leeringly enjoying the affection of another woman’s “beautiful” child.
Perhaps these characterizations bothered me all the more because Nora is a public school teacher. The founding thinkers of the American Common Schools movement, Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher, explicitly conceived of teaching as a job for spinsters. Teaching could ease the stigma of being unwed. It allowed single women to “homemake” inside the classroom, caring for children, just as the Calvinist God supposedly predestined all women to do. Historians call this the “pedagogy of love”—the idea that it is more important for female teachers to act as surrogate mothers to their students than it is for them to actually impart academic knowledge. Of course, many great teachers are warm and caring. But the sexist assumptions behind the pedagogy of love are so problematic—they have been such a barrier to rigorous public education, and to the professionalization of teaching—that it is disturbing to see these ideas reproduced so unquestioningly in the novel. Beneath her carefully cultivated professionalism, Mrs. Eldrige, it turns out, is really just a frustrated, barren woman.
And Messud traffics in another outdated 19th century conception of the female teacher: that she is good at her job because she is, herself, childlike. We know from Nora’s first-person narration that she considers herself stuck in the “dutiful daughter” stage of life; she is consumed by her own housewife mother’s disappointments and expectations, and more interested in deciphering her parents’ marriage than in taking the risk of being in a long-term relationship herself. In a weird inversion of reality, Nora had left a high-paid, jet-setting consulting job—money and prestige hadn’t mattered to her—to study art and then become a teacher. (In real life, of course, people do Teach for America and then go work for Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, rarely the other way around.) When a mother of one of Nora’s students “says that I get kids, part of me puffs up like a peacock, but another part thinks she is calling me crazy. Or that, at the very least, she’s separating me from the tribe of the fully adult. And this, in turn, will explain…why I don’t have children of my own.” Nora confirms the thesis. “I’m like the children,” she admits. “My motivations and my reasons aren’t always clear.”
Irrational, unpredictable — even obsessed and crazy, under a surface of stable independence. That is Messud’s vision of the single, childless woman. It made me sad and scared and angry. Sad for Nora. Scared to ever become like her. And angry on behalf of all the single women leading impressive and rewarding lives, who have to confront these stereotypes day in and day out, and who might expect something richer, and more unexpected, from one of our leading novelists.