As was born as a daughter of Quakers,

As an avid fan of
Shakespeare, having read several of his plays in high school, and many more in
university,  I was excited to begin
reading Anne Tyler’s novel, as it is a retelling of Shakespeare’s famous play The Taming of the Shrew. While I had not
read this play in particular, I had seen a performance of it, coincidentally
this same year. For accuracy, and understanding the story to a higher degree, I
decided to read The Taming of the Shrew before
I started reading Vinegar Girl. After
reading both the novels, I highly recommend this approach, as there are many
subtle nuances in Vinegar Girl that
are easily overlooked without reading Shakespeare’s classic first.  In this reading guide, I intent to go over
the contents of Vinegar girl, whilst also contrasting it with its Shakespearean
counterpart. Furthermore, I will explain some of the central themes used in Vinegar Girl, as well as offering some
new perspectives through socio-literary issues such as feminism and
gender-equality, especially concerning the relationship between Kate and the
men in her life.

–         
Kristie Elken

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Colophon

Author:                                               Anne
Tyler

Title:                                                   Vinegar
Girl

Year of publication:                           2016

Genre:                                                Humor,
Romance

Period:                                                Contemporary

Key words:                                          Gender performativity, feminism,
gender roles, literary criticism, patriarchy.

ISBN:                                                   9780099589877

Publisher:                                           Vintage

About the author

Anne Tyler was born October 25, 1941 in Minnesota, U.S. She was born as a daughter of
Quakers, and as a result she spend much of her early life in North Carolina in
several Quaker communities. When she was 16 years old, she enrolled into Duke
University there and graduated when she was 19. After working various jobs as a
librarian and bibliographer, she eventually became a full time author in
Baltimore, Maryland. Her novels,

often portraying the life of modern women in the south, often showcase
Tyler’s empathetic and witty personal views, as well as a refreshing take on
the details of a domestic life.

Tyler published her first novel when she was
only 23, in 1964, which was entitled: If
Morning Ever Comes. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, this novel already displayed much of the
polished prose and understated examination of personal isolation and the
difficulty of interpersonal communication which would characterize her later
works (1). Nevertheless, this novel did not receive a lot of attention, nor
much critical acclaim. She published many more novels after this, such as The
Tin Can Tree (1965), A Slipping-Down Life (1970),
and The Clock Winder (1972), which gained her a much greater
audience, but her novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
actually became a national best seller. Her most famous novel is The
Accidental Tourist (1985), which was made into a film in 1988. After
her big success, she continued her writing, which won her a Pulitzer prize.
Finally, in 2016, she wrote Vinegar Girl,
as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, which the Daily Mail has called:
“her funniest book to date”, and became a Sunday Times bestseller. In an interview,
she stated that she ‘detests’ Shakespeare and his plays, which was her main motivation
behind rewriting the novel (Charles 1). About The Taming of the Shrew, she stated: ‘I hate it. It’s totally
misogynistic. I know it thinks it’s funny but it’s not,’ (Teeman 1).

About Vinegar
Girl

            This novel, as mentioned above, is
part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Series,
with the goal to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays in a modern setting. A difficulty
is that this is hardly a new concept, as for hundreds of years, Shakespeare’s
works have been told and retold, and adapted in countless ways. The Hogarth
Shakespeare Series acknowledges this, as their website states that
Shakespeare’s plays have been “reinterpreted for each new generation, whether
as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or
literary transformations” (2). Nevertheless, the Hogarth Shakespeare Series’
scale is much larger than just tackling a single play. In total seven
adaptations of the bard’s plays have been made so far, including Macbeth (Jo
Nesbo), The Tempest(Margaret Atwood) and King Lear(Edward st. Aubyn), with
Hamlet by Gillian Flynn coming up in 2021. The series launched in October
2015 and to date will be published in twenty countries.

In the novel, Vinegar girl presents the readers with
Kate Battista as a modern adaptation of the Shakespearean character Katherina
Minola. In Shakespeare’s version of the story, the sweet and agreeable younger
sister Bianca is forbidden to wed until her older sister is married. The only
problem is that contrary to her sister, Katherina has a temper, is not afraid
to lash out and has a sharp tongue she uses to scare away potential suitors. After
Petruchio intends to marry Katherina for her fortune, she is forced to go with
him by her father. Under Petruchio’s unflappable and harsh rule she eventually
submits to her husband’s will. So when Katherina Minola is forced into a
marriage by her father, she transforms from a cold, harsh shrew to a complacent
and submissive wife. However, in Tyler’s modern adaptation, when Kate Battista
is ‘forced’ into a marriage to Pyotr, this transformation seems less apparent.
Tyler removes the slightly sexist and outdated issue of an arranged marriage,
and cleverly substitutes it with a green card marriage. Kate reluctantly agrees
to marry Pyotr, so that he can continue to help her father in his research. There
are some major differences between the main characters from Shakespeare’s play
and those from Tyler’s novel. The crux lies mostly in Kate’s behaviour. While
Katherina was rude and aware of it, Kate’s issue lies mostly in her lacking
social skills. An interesting development is that the audience gets to know
Kate’s thoughts and inner turmoil on the events in her life, which perhaps
makes her more endearing and relatable. Pyotr also seems different from his
counterpart, Petruchio. He appears more nuanced and less antagonistic towards
Kate. His misunderstanding of the local customs and the misinterpretation of
Kate’s words also make him more endearing to the audience. While his motives
for the marriage are no less selfish than Petruchio’s, Pyotr truly appears to harbour
affection towards his wife, something which cannot be said for Petruchio. This
is a recurring theme in Anne Tyler’s novel, as all of her characters, while
featuring similar flaws as Shakespeare’s characters, also have some endearing
qualities which make them appear more sympathetic towards the audience. The
father is absent-minded and seems uncaring about his daughters happiness, yet
he does have moments where he displays that he really has his daughter’s best
interests at heart. Bunny displays dim-witted behaviour and seems only
interested in romantic relationships, yet she is shown to be principled in her
vegetarianism and has moments of seriousness which indicate that she cares for
her family.

 

Reception

            Many critics reacted positively to
the book, ranging from considering it an enjoyable read to flat out suggesting
it is better than Shakespeare’s original work. For instance, a review in The
Guardian called the work “Fun, accomplished, readable, enjoyable” (1), while
the New York Times stated “Shakespeare, that tireless reworker of old material,
would be pleased, I am sure” (1). Nevertheless, there are also quite a few
critics who do not agree with this view, and denounce the novel. A review from
NPR books stated: “Vinegar Girl is a fizzy cocktail of a romantic
comedy, far more sweet than acidic, about finding a mate who appreciates you
for your idiosyncratic, principled self – no taming necessary.” Another review
criticised not only Tyler’s novel (calling it contrived), but also the entire
Hogarth Shakespeare Project: “It’s hard to say what the point of it all is”
(Brown 1).  Personally, I did not
particularly enjoy the fact that Kate was instantly submissive to other men in
her surroundings, particularly to her father and to Adam. In my view, the
exaggeration of Shakespeare’s characters which made the play into a parody of
traditional male and female roles are lost in Tyler’s novel, which show much
more nuance and different perspectives. This is not necessarily a bad thing nor
does it make the novel altogether unenjoyable. Vinegar Girl remains a fun novel to read, and the modern setting is
a refreshing innovative take on the original.

 

Recommendations

            If
you haven’t already, I would recommend reading Shakespeare’s original
The Taming of the Shrew, even if it is just for context. There will be many
references and connections to Anne Tyler’s novel that would otherwise be
missed. As it helps put the plays into context, if it is available either
online or in real life, try to see a life-action performance of the play.

Looking beyond literature, a film and musical
called Kiss me Kate came out in the 50s. This movie features The
Taming of the Shrew as a play within the narrative of the movie. While not
entirely accurate, the relatively modern setting, especially in turbulent
feminist era of the 50s in very interesting to see, and adds much historic
perspective.

While there are very few novel adaptations beyond Vinegar girl, The Taming of the Shrew was also successfully
updated into the 90’s teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You.
It might be interesting to watch this movie and see how this adaptation of
Shakespeare’s original compares to Vinegar
Girl.

Lastly, while it has little to do with Vinegar Girl itself, I would encourage reading other editions of
the Hogarth Shakespeare Project for comparison. Personally, I thoroughly
enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s modern retelling of The Tempest in her novel Hag Seed.

 

Feminism and Gender performativity

According to Napikoski, feminist literary
criticism is a literary analysis that arises from the viewpoint of feminism, ?feminist theory and/or feminist
politics. This includes re-evaluating certain literary works with a different
approach. Napikoski also states that an important part of feminist literary
criticism is the active support of women’s knowledge in literature and valuing
women’s experiences (2). Resulting from these theories, critics have divided
feminism into three ‘waves’. First Wave Feminism, which started late
1700s and lasted well into the early 1900’s and Second Wave Feminism which
dates from the 1960s until the 1970s. Vinegar Girl would be categorised
in the most recent wave, which dates from 1990 and onwards. According to the
OWL, this wave of feminism denotes “resisting the perceived essentialist
ideologies and a white, heterosexual, middle class focus of second wave feminism
and expanding marginalised populations’ experiences” (5). Usually, these forms
of feminism represented a resistance against the patriarchy. Feminist literary
theory takes this concept and goes beyond it.

A major figure of this
third wave of feminism is philosopher and political activist Judith Butler. She
argues that feminist theory has “sought to understand the way in which systemic
or pervasive political and cultural structures are enacted and reproduced
through individual acts and practices” (522). She analyses this further in her
book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), in which she criticizes outdated perceptions
of gender. In her book she explains that people are not born with an identity, but
rather that this identity is created for them by society. In one of her essays
Butler states:

Significantly, if gender is instituted through acts
which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is
precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the
mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and
to perform in the mode of belief. (520)

What Butler implies
here is that the gender identity given to us by society comes from a repetition
of acts in our lives. Society requires people to act in a certain way, and many
accept these requirements. Consequentially, people will begin to believe and
conform to this identity, precisely because of this society. This is what
Butler calls performativity of gender. The way we act, influenced by society,
makes up our gender identity. In another essay, Butler explains how humans
strive for recognition of our own identities. The only issue here is that the
norms which constitute this recognition change continuously, as Butler states:
“The terms by which we are recognised as human are socially articulated and
changeable” (2). As a result, the norms which essentially make up our
identities are fickle and fluctuating.

This kind of gender
performativity plays a large role in Tyler’s novel. Vinegar Girl shows how every character struggles with their
identity, and the image they present to the rest of the world, Kate being the
most obvious example of this. She is criticised for the clothes she wears and
her ‘unladylike’ behaviour. It is the society around her which pressures Kate
into conforming to the qualities and characteristics that her assigned gender
denotes.

 

Feminism in Society
and  Literature

In our current
society, problems such as the wage-gap, dress codes and the expectations of
becoming a wife and mother placed upon women from a young age are extremely
relevant. It appears as if women are no longer given a choice in the matter. Wolf
and Fligstein state that “While men have obtained power through their
positions in the work setting, women’s power traditionally has derived from
their roles in the family” (235). Nevertheless, while it is true that the
concept of the working woman is hardly uncommon anymore, research indicates
that there are still major signs of inequality in the workplace. For example, problems
such as the difference in salary between males and females, instances of sexual
harassment without consequences, as well as the rate of women who get fired
from their jobs after becoming pregnant are all examples of what Acker calls
‘inequality regimes’. She argues that these kind of regimes are “the
interlocked practices and processes that result in continuing inequalities in
all work organizations” (443). These types of inequality regimes, as well as
the standardized gender roles are also found in many literary novels. In
literature, this issue is even more apparent. According to Holcombe: “The
problem lay deeper still, in the language itself. Words had been coined to
express a male point of view, and that was indeed misogynist. Some 220 words
exist in English for the sexually promiscuous woman, but only 22 for
promiscuous men” (2). There are very few novels featuring women that do not have
entire essays discussing the question whether or not the story has a feminist
viewpoint, or if the women can be considered ‘strong’ female characters or not.
The problem is that often, an argument can be made for both sides. It is
precisely this issue which can be found in Tyler’s novel.  In Vinegar
Girl, we see Kate struggle with these issues, through the way she is
expected to dress for work and through the way she is forced into a marriage
with a man who is virtually a stranger to her. In the end, Kate delivers a
grand speech about how difficult it is to be a man and the epilogue features
her as a loving wife and mother. On the one hand, it shows Kate’s submitting to
the patriarchy and becoming a stereotype of her assigned gender role. On the
other hand, Kate is shown free from her father, happy with the choice she made.
It is this freedom of choice which could potentially make her a strong female
character. Often, the definition of what makes literature feminist or not,
depends on the interpretation of the reader.

 

Discussion Questions

1.     
Did you enjoy this novel. Why/why not?

2.     
Kate is unsatisfied with her life at home and at work,
but does very little to change her situation. Do you think her father’s plan to
marry her off to Pyotr was what Kate needed to change her life?

3.     
 Do you think that Kate can be considered a
feminist character? Consider her transformation from her rebellious but
insecure persona to the submissive but confident woman she becomes.

4.     
What about Bunny? She is principled and is not afraid
to stand her ground, but is constantly belittled by her father, sister and
other characters. Can she be considered a strong female character?

5.     
Do you think that Pyotr sincere in his affections for
Kate, or does he, like his Shakespearean counterpart, represent the patriarchy
to which women must submit? On this note, if you found yourself in Kate’s
shoes, would you agree to marry Pyotr? Why/Why not?

6.     
Do you agree that Kate induces her own ‘taming’? Do
you think she is the cause of her own submission?

7.     
If you have read Shakespeare’s The Taming of the
Shrew, compare and contrast Katherina’s actions and personality to Kate’s. What
are the differences and similarities between the two?

8.     
Think about Butler’s view on gender identity. Do you
agree with her? Compare Butler’s theory on gender to the characters in Vinegar Girl. Do they show signs of
gender performativity? Think not only of Kate, but also of her sister, her
father and Pyotr.

Tyler said in an
interview that she hates Shakespeare and especially The Taming of the Shrew. Why do you think she would then
choose to adapt this play? Do you think the final product is marginally
different from Shakespeare’s version?

10.  If you could rewrite
the ending/epilogue of the novel, would you, and what would you change?

 

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