The Female Fool
by Jenny Hatchadorian
It was 2003, I’d just finished my freshman year at Tulane, and I was thinking a lot about A Confederacy of Dunces, the picaresque novel that was basically required reading in New Orleans. The novel has flaws, but I drank up Ignatius Reilly’s grand, ungovernable, garrulous manner. He was insensitive but not cruel, his irascibility was shrouded in originality and humor that revealed the artifice of society. Not entirely a burnout, he was a fool or clown who navigated the world without following the rules – to me, he oozed possibility and invention.
I pondered the fool sitting on Nantucket’s stormy beach in May, which in and of itself was a marvel. Freshman year at Tulane, my friend Katrina and I had been mystified by the access, money, and experiences of many students, and at the end of spring semester, we hatched a plan: don’t spend the summer living at our parents’ houses and working boring jobs. After discussing several options, we landed on Nantucket where Katrina’s friend grew up and agreed to house us when we arrived.
After school let out, I returned to my parents’ house in suburban Cleveland and I hitched a ride with my brother to Philadelphia, took a flight to Boston, and Katrina picked me up in her parents’ Subaru, but when we pulled into her driveway something felt off. When it came time to leave for Nantucket, Katrina’s mom wouldn’t let her go. I had two choices: return to my parents’ house in suburban Ohio and split shifts between a greasy restaurant and J. Crew or proceed with the plan.
From the moment Katrina’s friend picked me up at the harbor in a Jeep Wrangler, a young man named Nat was with him. Katrina’s friend was from one of Nantucket’s founding families mentioned in Moby Dick, and as he drove us to his backhouse where we would stay, he pointed to the streets, roundabouts, and buildings that bore his name. We parked in a gravel driveway, and he carried my giant suitcase into the small house behind his mother’s house.
We were happy to live on our own, but as college freshmen displaced from the dining hall there were logistical challenges. It was clear that his mother didn’t want us frequenting her pantry, and eager to prove ourselves as adults, we didn’t want to either, so we fended for ourselves, which meant we ate as little as possible. When we were close to passing out, we succumbed to the grocery store, takeout, or leftovers from his mom.
It was mid-May which meant that despite my freshly printed resumes and grown-up wrinkly outfits, no one would hire me until the season really took off in early July, which was a problem because I was running out of money. Katrina’s friend assured me that if I just held out, I’d really rake it in.
To fill the days, we wandered the town, drove his Jeep on the dunes, and navigated the jetty’s rocks to catch the sunset from the lighthouse, always accompanied by Nat. It seemed that Nat was staying in the backhouse because he couldn’t afford housing, yet he had plenty of money to spend on takeout and leisurewear. When the May wind whipped at my summer wardrobe, I followed him into a local shop and at his urging I foolishly bought a Patagonia fleece with nearly the rest of my money.
I was outnumbered, and the boys ran the show, but I was a young woman who could keep up with their political discussions, card games, drinking, freshly packed bowls, and jokes. Without jobs, classes, or an entertainment budget, we had a lot of time to think, and I stared at the sea, contemplating A Confederacy of Dunces.
Like Don Quixote, Ignatius Reilly demonstrated a surprising amount of power as he found his way in the world. In contemporary literature, female characters had inhabited several typically male roles – relentless workaholic, brutish alcoholic, and power-hungry task master, but the mischievous, indulgent, congenial fool remained distinctly male – Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chance the gardener in Being There, Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye, Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
An often-cited female equivalent of the fool was the feisty heroine – Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar – but the fool was not feisty. The fool was calm and equipped at getting things done for them. Pippi and Anne were both prepubescent which disqualified them, same as the often-mentioned Sophie in Nights at the Circus who hatched from an egg and had wings. Further, I lamented that while A Confederacy of Dunces ended on a happy note in that Ignatius found a partner who helped him pursue his dream, Anne of Green Gables ended with Anne quitting her education to be a caretaker, and The Bell Jar ended with Esther institutionalized and seemingly succumbing to the role of motherhood – a role she dreaded throughout the novel.
Here, on my adventure in Nantucket, I was a female fool of sorts. I was a wayward, journeywoman who came on her own without a specific objective. I was not here to take care of the men, or be wooed by them. I was a presence, living, breathing, and reacting to the world like everyone else. I was a naturally naughty and irreverent social observer, a jokester, a being who was floating in the ether and trying to get her kicks, too.
I knew most men did not react well to the female fool. She did not cater to them, and she did not need or want, she was. She moved about, had experiences, made mistakes, earned victories, and suffered defeat. The fool was light, carefree, some would say careless. Not exactly hedonistic, the fool was a friend or coworker admired by some and slandered by others. The fool provided entertainment, sometimes unwittingly. The fool had a good time and pitched in without descending to servitude. The fool smiled but did not process your feelings for you.
Feminine awareness, sensitivity, and attention to detail were positive traits – arguably, they were part of our survival. They were how homes were made and families stayed together. But at nineteen years old, I was drawn to the empowerment in a particular sort of drifting that might be seen as a lack of direction but that I found it necessary in forming identity, livelihood, access, and perspective. I suppose I wanted women to have the luxury to play the fool.
Some literary critics felt differently, like Jean Hannah Edelstein in the Guardian who discussed how female protagonists not only lacked the need to go on quests to showcase their masculinity, they also seemed more apt to succumb to the pressures of womanhood. In all the examples I could conjure of literary heroines, their storylines resulted in submission labeled as growth, whereas the fool offered transcendence.
Additionally, in the Ploughshares Blog, Professor Amber Kelly wrote how the origin of the fool was difficult to pinpoint because he did not have a clear initiation. Instead, he emerged in a few important moments in literary history, such as in Greek and Roman literature where he appeared as a servant who tricked his master. Biblically, the fool can be seen in two feminine embodiments – Wisdom and Folly, which I found marginally encouraging, but I thought it more pertinent that these traits were separated into two characters. In the Middle Ages, the fool became more pervasive, although he did not gain his paradoxical wisdom until the Tudor period, most famously in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
I knew from even an introductory level of Shakespeare’s King Lear that the fool often received kindnesses and benefits from the social elite. Seemingly guided by nothing other than instinct, the fool was not expected to grasp all social conventions and thus was left to enjoy relative freedom, particularly in his freedom of speech. It had worked for my father – another fool – whose political aspirations succeeded because of wealthy donors amazed at both his lack of corruption and his genuine naivety. Like my father, my manner was not a cunning choice, it was embedded in my personhood.
At the same time, I thought about who I was in high school – a prepubescent, nerdy, scrawny runt – and who I wanted to be in college. I didn’t go through puberty until I was eighteen, only after being put on the pill. I was a good girl, honors student, class officer, but I was also a bit of a scamp – a girl-boy with a mischievous side known for testing boundaries and making jokes that sometimes failed miserably but other times held the power in the room. Above all, I was a virgin. Judging from the sideways glances of young men at my suburban Ohio high school, they could handle smart nerds and they could handle funny fuck-ups, but they didn’t like you to be both – that was man’s territory.
Tulane had been a little better – the student body were largely from major metropolitan centers, and young men from big cities liked scrawny girls with a sharp tongue – but I’d spent freshman year sheltered by a nice guy I had little pull toward and I was still a virgin. Somehow, on Nantucket I had ascended a level and gained the attention of two attractive young men. In the strange microcosm of an island cut off from the world, where tourists had yet to arrive and there was only one party to attend with the same six people, I found I could reinvent myself. I wanted to finally reveal who I had always been – a scamp, a jokester, an innocent – but with magnetism.
“Huh, you’re right,” Katrina’s friend said on a walk when I illuminated a difference between Democrats and Republicans that wasn’t as obvious in 2003.
“I’ve never met a girl like you,” Nat said later that night after I finished smoking the bowl and made fun of a commercial in a way that made them both laugh. He said it with a blank expression, but he seemed charmed by me.
In some ways, I wondered why Katrina’s friend was housing me. He seemed to enjoy our time together, he laughed at my jokes and listened to my opinions. He didn’t want or expect anything from me, in a way that I liked. Apparently, he had a crush on Katrina, who he occasionally rolled around with but had yet to cross the threshold.
Nat was curious about me, too. He drank up my wisdom, sometimes laughed at my jokes, and shared private details from his life. His parents had divorced and remarried and now they had young children, which was clearly difficult for him. He went to the type of expensive Northeast college no one had heard of, from which he had been expelled for drunkenly peeing on a local gas station attendant. When he recounted the story, I told him it was wrong, but in a light manner. I listened and asked questions, but we did not speak intimately. We spoke in a broader sense about patterns and power structures, society, individuality. Now my Libertarian viewpoint makes me cringe, but at the time I had the right audience.
A deeper part of me didn’t trust Nat. He was planning his summer housing beyond the backhouse, and he had his mind set on a moored boat offered up by a generous acquaintance. He tried to sell me on the idea, insisting it was only a short kayak ride from shore, but something in me told me not to share space with him for a duration.
For the second time in a week, we attended a party at the home of other early seasoners. There were six of us in total, including decades-older locals Katrina’s friend knew. As a storm raged outside, we played Monopoly, drank, and roasted ‘Smores on an indoor fireplace. We broke up the monotony of Monopoly with chatter and by wandering the sprawling home adorned in nautical and barnacle paraphernalia. After Katrina’s friend showed me his name in a decorative copy of Moby Dick, he mentioned a restaurant that might hire me early season and agreed to take me tomorrow.
Later, from a hallway in the rear of the house, Nat and I watched a cataclysmic gust of wind wreck a nearby dock. The window we saw it from was in a bedroom, and as we moved toward it, I noticed the change in space.
“Let’s check it out,” Nat said, and I followed him outside as we exited the rear of the house.
It wasn’t raining, but the wind was so strong it made the simple wooden dock rise and fall as if in a cartoon. In the past hour, he had grown smiley, touchy in a way he hadn’t been before, but while Katrina’s friend laughed at my jokes and enjoyed my comments for what they were, this guy was more opaque. After I spoke, he would look at me, straining, either taking too keen an interest, or perhaps leering that I had stepped out of my role as a young woman. I couldn’t tell which, but at the same time, he had confided in me, he seemed impressed by me, and he seemed interested. He was so conventionally attractive that I found it foreign when his gaze lingered on me. It took little more than another gust of wind before I huddled next to him, and we were kissing.
A few moments later we were back in the bedroom, and even when he shut the door, I didn’t register the shift in space with abject fear or concern. By then I had hooked up with several guy friends, making out, and sometimes doing more if it felt right. This guy was practically a friend, and I didn’t see how this would be that different. Except that when I didn’t want to go further, he held my arms down, and made sure we did. I fought back, and yelled out, but we were in a corner of the house, and he had at least 85 lbs. on me. I struggled, kicked at him, and yelled out a few more times, but no one heard. Then I grew silent at the impossibility of what was happening.
The next few days were stormy, and I was quiet. It took a while because he was drunk, and I bled more than once. I was so swollen that I could barely sit down, let alone pee without tearing up at the pain. Again, I stared at the sea, but it didn’t have the same sense of solace. The waves broke on the shore, but the sea’s undulating surface was no longer ripe for meditation and examination, I was no longer carefree and curious. I retreated to my familiar mode of replaying facts, dialog, and actions from the night before. I did this to look for jokes and to search for clues to the way things were, all while trying to usurp society’s norms.
My obsession with facts was also a defense mechanism. In response to insults slung, claims of ill behavior, and social transgressions, I had facts. Facts were inarguable. Facts were evidence. I was a child from a family of lawyers, and facts were gold. My middle school friend Dana always said my notes were brutal because they were made up simply of facts. Hearing her say this was a bit of a revelation for me. I thought I simply wrote what happened, or perhaps what I saw, I didn’t realize that my hold on facts was the response of an defensive young woman.
Over time I found holes in my safety net. Facts painted an incomplete picture. Facts could be recited by an automated children’s game. Facts did not show understanding, forgiveness, progress. I knew this but I couldn’t release my primal grip on something that had hidden, deflected, and sheltered me for so long.
Now something had happened where facts did not provide salvation. The facts did not save me. they could not even be twisted to do so. The facts were horrible.
It was 2003 and my rape education at my Ohio public high school was relegated to a video brought in on a cart. Freshman year at Tulane, my close friend had been raped and beaten up by four men who tore her ACL. The next year when she was my roommate it happened again in the form of another violent act perpetrated by multiple men, and, after a local police officer came to our house and said that it didn’t happen, we had to chase her to bring her to the hospital. How could I use the same word for what happened to me? In a twisted way, Nat had courted me. He had flirted. According to Katrina, he still talked about me, and he called me on my birthday a month after I left the island and sang happy birthday on my voicemail.
A little over a year after it happened, I was at dinner with my mother, sister, and my sister’s friend for my 21st birthday. The Kobe Bryant case came up and the women at the table uniformly said she’s making it up. After a vague rebuttal, I headed for the bathroom in tears. My mother found me and guessed the reason for my distress. When I nodded that I had been raped, she asked, “Why did you go alone?” I supposed she was trying to make sense of it, think how it could not have happened, but her retort was devastating, silencing, and infuriating. She placed the onus on me because even as a young woman I went alone after Katrina cancelled.
Around this same time, I discovered I had HPV from the rape, and my mother’s male gynecologist in Ohio accused me of being promiscuous. Shortly after, when I worked up the nerve to tell my closest girlfriends, one said, “That didn’t happen to you,” and the other said, “You can’t tell her that,” which is not the same as “Yes, it did.” When I told my brother he was behind the wheel, and he nearly crashed the car. When he steadied the vehicle, he gripped the steering wheel with animalistic rage.
For a person who clung to facts so thoroughly, by early adulthood I had given up on them completely. Sophomore year I transferred universities, and with the shift in location I exchanged facts for analysis. In and out of class, I obsessively turned over why things happened. I was at a different university to study a major not offered at Tulane, but I also left because I couldn’t face people who knew me before and had witnessed the obvious fallout. By that point, I knew I had been raped to be put in my place. It happened because I was a female fool – I was both funny and smart and I publicly charmed and entertained people, and that was man’s territory. The realization hung on my neck like an anchor.
In my junior year Women & Film class, I wasn’t a shining student – by then I had gone silent – but I relished the class that analyzed female characters throughout cinema history and the female professor who prompted lively discussion. When we screened Boys Don’t Cry, the biographical 1999 film about trans man Brandon Teena who was murdered in rural Nebraska, the professor asked, “Why did they rape Brandon?” I knew the answer immediately, but I did not raise my hand.
A student offered, “to hurt him,” another said, “to scare him,” and finally one said, “to intimidate him,” but the professor kept shaking her head at these interpretations. She didn’t think much of her quietest student, so she was a bit shocked when I raised my hand with the right answer. “To show him he was a woman.” It was a specific type of domination that said exactly that.
As I navigated life after my assault, romantic suitors were surprisingly not my main issue. I picked good men, I always had, and I married young. However, the men I did not choose had a surprising amount of power in my life, especially male bosses. When my rights and freedoms were violated, I wouldn’t stand for it. I left jobs and moved many times. Running away solved the immediate problem, but it was hardly standing up for myself.
Slowly, I found a community of women who understood, and even when our commiserating was little more than a quick confession at a bar, the acknowledgment was life-altering. My husband knew, unlike some men I’d dated for years, and I struggled through his acceptance, which ranged from affirmations of gender equality to comments that compared my rape to a DUI – as if it was something I perpetrated. In my weaker moments, I wondered if women couldn’t inhabit the archetype of the fool because of the gravity of things that could happen to us. But in my stronger moments, I embraced the fool within myself; I could still be a scamp, a rascal, a carefree devil who saw the world and called it out.
Now I am a wife, and mother, who still hasn’t let go of her grasp and need for the female fool. Occasionally, I find evidence of her, best exemplified in Elif Batuman’s 2017 The Idiot. Selin is a linguistics major who debates the meaning of words, as she bumbles through freshman year loosely chasing a guy named Ivan, but also seeking adventure and purpose. In Harper’s Magazine, Molly Fischer describes Selin:
Like Dostoevsky’s idiot, Batuman’s possesses a naïveté that is a source of both uncommon insight and uncomfortable ignorance… For Selin, ignorance is a source of shame… she confronts that shame head-on. She wants to learn her way out.
After a last disconcerting encounter with Ivan, Selin looks back on freshman year, and claims, “I hadn’t learned anything at all.” But, after Selin finally labels her encounter with Ivan as unsatisfactory, the reader knows better. In The Idiot, Batuman rejects the idea of submission-as-growth, and she replaces it with the wayward victory of a charming female fool.
More often I find examples of the female fool being held up against a moral standard. In her 2017 NPR review of Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up about a 39 year old woman who chooses to forgo marriage and children to absorb the flavors of the world, Annalisa Quinn claims the main flaw of the book is that Attenberg and her heroine Andrea are not moral. Quinn discusses the voice – the single woman who is figuring out life while living unapologetically.
The Voice isn’t always shallow: I read and loved deeper versions of it in Emily Gould, Lena Dunham, and Maria Semple (two of whom blurbed this book). All four authors ask how to be happy — but Gould, Dunham, and Semple go on to ask how to be good.
Would such a standard be asked of satiric contemporary male authors like Tony Tulathimutte, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris? Do they need to be good? Or can they just be poignant?
The significance of characters like Batuman’s Selin and Attenberg’s Andrea is that morality is not their highest concern, which is somehow only a deficit for women. The fool is not immoral or amoral. She questions without shouting on a soapbox, she mines the lessons of the world without becoming bitter and enraged, and she infuses her experiences with insight and humor. But literature has reserved this likable, independent terrain almost exclusively for male characters. If life mimics art, and it very well may, I look forward to the day when we embrace the female fool and our heroines can be charming without being hedonistic, experienced without being victimized, wise without being broken.
Jenny Hatchadorian has been published by Full Grown People, Little Old Lady, Role Reboot, and Story Club Magazine.She reads original comedic essays on her podcast Everything Good. She is an awardee of St. Nell’s humor writing residency. Her manuscript of comedic essays was a semi-finalist for The Journal’s 2022 Nonfiction Prize. She has an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, and she is a member of the faculty at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Follow her on Instagram @hatchadorianhere or Twitter @EvGoodPodcast