Freud’s Immortal Question

Or, one student’s adventures in higher learning


To: Colleagues in the Writing Module

From: Jack Hexter

Many of you who have worked with Richard Treacy will be impressed by the progress he has made, as shown by his essay (below) on the take-home final (open-book, three hours).


Sigmund Freud asked, in evident exasperation, “What do women want?” Based on your understanding of at least three of the works we read this semester, how would you answer Freud’s question? Be sure to give a title to your essay.


What Women Want

by Richard H. Tracey


Some would say they want to get married and raise a family. Others want to “have it all.” I am not sure whether that is even possible, but it is the ideal pursued by some. I think the answer is more complicated than that.

It is hard to generalize about women, but I will try, because half of us are them, slightly more than a majority, and maybe even more than that according to demographic studies indicating that women live longer than men, and it is something like 50.2% versus 49.8% of the population. So technically it is possible that they could vote a woman president into office if they all stuck together.

When I think of Antigone, Major Barbara, The Death of Ivan Ilych, the Bible, and even Lucky Jim, looking for what they have in common, each woman is a unique individual, with an identity that sets them apart at the same time that they belong to a larger group, just like each of us who come from different backgrounds, and yet, as was mentioned in class, there is “unity in diversity” for despite our variegated pasts we share a “stake in humanity” by endeavoring to do the same little everyday things like brush our teeth, put on our clothes, and eat breakfast before we come to class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 A.M. in Hartwick Hall.

Let me give an example. Of these various female characters. And what they want. Since that is the question. They all want to help. Antigone helps her brother, Barbara tries to help those whose souls need saving, Lady Britomart tries to help her family and herself, and Praskovya helps society by conforming with it. Also, Eve helps to fulfill human destiny by eating the apple, and Kurtz’s fiancée in Heart of Darkness wants to help the war effort in the Congo by honoring Kurtz and the sacrifices he made.

Thus, each of these four women leads an individual life, with individual desires that sets them apart. One desires the ordinary, one the extraordinary; one desires to save souls, and one wants to be the center of attention.

Yet they have one thing in common. Whatever they desire, each wants to succeed in that desire. And furthermore each goes to extremes to fulfill that desire. Praskovya ignores her husband’s death, Antigone hangs herself, Barbara accepts the entirely different philosophy of Undershaft, Eve bites into the apple and then brings it to Adam, not knowing what the consequences will be, and Margaret throws fits. Women, then, desire what she will, but always desires success.

Sadly there may come a time for each of them when enough has gone too far. But for whom could it be different?

Speaking personally, it is very hard to say what a woman wants. Freud would not have asked it if the answer was obvious. He would probably answer in terms of “sexual desire,” which I find hard to believe considering that sex is not necessarily overrated but is merely one facet of a life in which there are other aspects including quality of life issues (food, beer, having a pet, etc.), sports (football being the obvious example, but again this transcends gender, e.g. the U.S. women’s soccer team), politics (Hillary Clinton), and yes, even our studies, which may be the key to future success if affluence is the goal or if you want to get into law school, the Peace Corpse, or the foreign service, which has a test which I hear is a bitch.

Nevertheless as we discussed in class the drive to bear children is so strong that even the loss of paradise in the first three chapters in the Bible is related to it, and the women in the class agreed.

On the other hand the case for sex can be made. For example, the name Undershaft itself includes a phallic sign (“shaft”), and Antigone’s father did exactly what Freud said every male wants to do, which is to kill his father and sleep with his mother without knowing it.

So maybe the best thing to do is to ask them. If Undershaft, Ivan Ilych, and the painter in Lucky Jim had asked their ladies what they wanted, they would have saved everyone a lot of trouble. The obvious exception is Adam in the Bible, because he did what his wife wanted, Eve, or what she said she wanted since it could be argued that even Eve, fruit in hand, wasn’t sure of what she wanted, or how she would have answered the question, and the pressure would have been great because she was the first woman and was effectively deciding for everyone who came after.

In conclusion, what they want is different depending on who they are. They are not the same. Circumstances change. Women today have more opportunities than housewives in the 1950s on television. Amid all the variables the one constant is the question itself, like death itself, which all of us must confront eventually. But who knows what lurks on the other side of that wall? As Katz wrote in the poem we read, “heard melodies are sweet, / but those unheard are sweeter.”

P. S. Thank you for everything, Professor. You rock. And I’m not just saying that. This class not only made me a better person but has also improved my writing skills.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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