The Figure of the Old Woman and the Hag
by Samia Benslimane
Throughout time, women have been subject to very confining roles that society has decided for them. There is a traditional plot line that is for the young female hero in literature based on love and marriage. However, for older woman characters there is also a traditional plot line. In the story “Three Wheeler”, Bobbie Ann Mason writes “against the grain” about a subject that not many authors want to discuss. She wanted to upset the traditional plot by questioning marriage and having children as the most important element of women’s lives.
We can see throughout the short story that there is a question about the figure of the old woman and the hag. In “Three Wheeler”, Mary has a conflict within herself, because she does not want to accept the role of women in society. She has never been married and has maybe even given up on the idea that she might one day. She has decided to be alone and to work as an independent woman who does not need the help of men. Old women in these situations in literature are usually depicted as hags. If we look at the definition of a hag, in the Encyclopedia of Literature, it says:
“Hag is a Middle English hagge old woman, witch in European folklore, an ugly and malicious old woman who practices witchcraft, with or without supernatural powers. Hags are often said to be aligned with the devil or the dead. Although viewed in most lore as the antithesis of fertility, the hag is believed by some scholars to be a remnant of primitive nature goddesses.”
In “Three Wheeler”, Mary uses the word “witch” to compare herself with, which shows how she depicts herself. I think that Bobbie Ann Mason wants to make a point against the idea that women do not have enough intelligence or capability of being alone and choosing not to marry. In many other stories, however, this theme comes up:
As a kind of generic or stereotypic figure, old women are assumed to be pitiful, alone, poor, often outcast, unhappy, and certainly trivial, as if by aging they have somehow failed. And as failures, they are uninteresting (Turkes 197).
The story “Three Wheeler” makes a statement about how women are controlled by the love of a man and how it is powerful in their lives. It shows how women are easily affected by men in their life. The relationship that Mary had with her lost lover seemed to be very exhausting for her, so when she lost him, she sort of lost herself at the same time: “She was happy because he was happy” (961). Therefore, she put so much energy into the relationship that when it ended, she sabotaged her own life. She follows the stereotype of the hag, when it is written: “She was startled to see a vague hag in the mirror.” And: “She was just a strange, unkempt woman baying at the wind” (960). It shows that she has also given up on taking care of herself and she does not care about what others think of her and certainly has given up on the idea of marriage.
There is also a comparison in the story of the female body that is aging with the young energetic boys that come to work for Mary. When one of the boys speaks about the three wheeler, he says: “It’ll rust out if you don’t ride it” (958). It shows a symbolic image, because if the three wheeler is going to rust out if it is not used, then her aging body will “rust” up, if she does not live her life fully.
Finally, Bobbie Ann Mason writes about a simple story of an old woman living alone and working as an artist, but she makes a point about what women might be doing during their lifetime and how they should look. These women grow to be very knowledgeable, wise and are a threat to men in society, so depicting old women as hags gives power to men and creates “othering” of these women. They are then put into another category of people in society, which makes it easier to judge them and see them in a way as failures.
Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, Letter H, pN.PAG, 00p.
Turkes, Doris J. Must Age Equal Failure?: Sociology Looks at Mary Wilkins Freeman's Old Women. ATQ, Sep99, Vol. 13 Issue 3, p197, 18p.