Helen and The Question of Success

       Number 46 of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself helps us identify and understand Helen from Judy Grahn’s The Work Of A Common Woman. Together, they reveal the sacrifices that Helen has made in order to live the life of a successful woman. Most importantly, 46 helps us understand why those sacrifices leave her dissatisfied in the end.

       The seventh stanza of #46 in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself contemplates the meaning of success and fulfillment in life. The speaker questions their spirit: 

       “… When we become the enfolders of the those 

       orbs and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them,

       shall we be filled and satisfied then?”

To which the spirit replied: “No, we level that lift to pass and continue beyond.” In these passages, the speaker questions if striving to be the best and desiring to have the most knowledge will give our life satisfaction. With the word “then” the speaker questions if only with greatness will we feel fulfillment in life. The spirit answers the speaker by denying these assumptions – they advise that we don’t need to have everything in this life, that it is impossible to have “knowledge of every thing” so we “we level” and “continue beyond.” It suggests a message to be satisfied with what you have and implies fulfillment of one’s life is not defined by how much you have accomplished.

       Using Whitman’s question of fulfillment and success, we are able to better understand one of Grahn’s common women, Helen. Helen defines herself as a woman who has found success in her occupation, a “boss” who “[wears] trim suits and spiked heels.” She is a woman of authority, “pitting the men against each other / and getting the women fired.” In her position, she holds authority over both men and women – revealing the power that her position allows her to have. If success were defined by society, Helen lives a successful life and she believes she does. However, as the poem makes explicit, “ she doesn’t realize yet, that she’s missed success, also.” The word “yet” greatly implies that Helen has defined success as becoming one of the greatest and accomplishing more than any other woman has. The word “missed” reveals to us that this is not how we should define success. As Whitman outlines, greatness and accomplishments do not guarantee success in living life.

       The seventh stanza of Whitman’s 46 reveals to us that fulfillment and satisfaction in life cannot be found by measuring your accomplishments or by continually striving to be the best. Helen, to be in her position, has sacrificed parts of herself. She becomes “stiff” as she “tries to make it in a male form.” This line reveals to us that she feels, in order to be successful, she must act as men do in society. That in order to be successful in this male-dominated society, she cannot be herself. She “[wears] trim suits” and says “‘bust’ instead of breasts” just as men do. Most unfortunate of all, in her successful life, “she misses love and trust” and in her “grief” she acts in “fits of fury.” These lines reveal that she is not satisfied with the life that she has chosen to live, that she is unhappy in her successful life. Just as the spirit of Whitman’s 46 tell us, satisfaction is not defined by our successes. By living a life where she continually sacrifices parts of herself for the promise of success, she unknowingly chooses a life that is not full or satisfactory. 

One thought on “Helen and The Question of Success”

  1. Thanks for the post.
    You did a good job pinning down the quotes that highlight the falsehood and discontent of Helen’s “success” and pairing them with the piece wisdom from Song of Myself.
    However, I wonder if this discontent can be examined further. The poem does make it explicit already the façade of such success. It reminds me of what Audre Lorde said: “The master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house;” which Helen is enacting here, taking the tools of her oppressors to establish herself. What else can be drawn from the nature of this “success”? Is she completely alone? Has she become destructive both to herself and others: “Pitting men against each other/and get the woman fire”?

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