“A Girl in Winter” was written by Phillip Larkin in 1947. It’s the story of Catherine, a young woman travelling to Britain by sea. She is a war refugee. A young man, Robin, must welcome her there. We are going to see that, in this extract, the author shows that the woman was generally dependant of the man at this time and how important physical appearances were, and still are.
The first lines describe her suitcase: we are told that all is perfectly ordered. However, the narrator insists too much on that: he repeats several times that “everything [is] in order”, as if the young lady was not used to being so organized and methodical. It can mean that the meeting with this man changes her habits.
Then we can observe in lines 6 and 7 “Robin had arranged to meet her”. This is very significant because it shows that the young man organized the whole meeting and she just accepted it. After that comes the description of the photo Robin sent her.
“It was not a question to which she gave much thought” (about Robin’s appearance): it shows that Catherine had a very strict education which tells her not to turn around boys or even to wonder what they look like. Her education is very oppressive so she doesn’t imagine having a relation with Robin.
Moreover, when she does think about his looks, the expression “The typical English face with projecting teeth” shows the young woman thought of Robin as a conventional man. It reinforces the idea of her not being educated to think he might be attractive. Nevertheless, the expression “in this she had been wrong” shows she finds him more attractive than what she thought.
When the narrator explains that “rather to her surprise, she had shown [Robin’s picture] to nobody except her parents”, the words “rather to her surprise” evoke the fact that she does not find Robin unattractive. However, if she is surprised to find herself attracted to him and if she doesn’t show it to anybody, it’s because it’s not like her to show off. This is because of her education which oppresses her and tells her to abstain from such ideas. To put it differently, she is “surprised” to realize she’s attracted to Robin because she doesn’t know herself well, her education oppressing her and her feelings. It’s a part of her she didn’t expect.She still showed it to her parents because she is honest and she fears to make them suspicious by hiding it.
The photo Catherine sends back to him shows her in a white dress with “hair drawn severely back”. White can be considered as a symbol of how pure she wants to appear. “Severely” can evoke the fact that she needs to look strict to be respected, as for her ordered luggage. Contrary to Robin who looks relaxed but can still be respected because he’s a man, Catherine must look severe to obtain respect because she is a woman.
The young lady sent a “conventional photo”; this means conformity: to be accepted by anyone you must be conventional. The white dress also was conventional at the time. All of this can mean that, as she knows nobody in Britain and Robin is her only chance, she tries to please him so that he accepts her and that she can be trusted.
We can see Robin is outgoing because he is relaxed and is not serious about his appearances: he’s the total contrary of Catherine. We can observe as well that Robin sent the first the photo: it can evoke the tradition of the boy taking the first step, and also again the fact that he is organizing the whole meeting. What also catches the reader’s attention is the absence of vivid colors and of sensuality in Catherine’s picture, as further confirmation of her repressed personality.
Then, when Catherine approaches the coast, she panics. The narrator says “All had been arranged so precisely. Yet, she could not help herself stirring uneasily”: there is no point in stressing, as all is ordered, but still she panics. She doesn’t know Robin so she is mistrustful. However, if she panics for nothing, it means that Robin is not the one to be mistrusted but her. Indeed, the reader is led to understand that the sense of discipline and order displayed by the contents of her suitcase does not last very long when Catherine is tested.
To conclude, we can say this text shows very well how women and men relations were considered and supposed to be at the time, whether it was love or a simple meeting. Either way, the man is always the one in charge, preparing and doing everything, and the woman is depicted as dependent on him, following and playing a much less important role, if any.
Milena, Hippolyte, Babylone & Anais. Posted by Hippolyte.