“A Sheltered Woman” is a short story by Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, and a subversion on the trope of the domestic suspense story. In a subcategory of these stories, an unstable woman enters the family home and threatens the family unit.
These domestic suspense stories — in which the woman a mother trusts most turns out to be a homicidal killer — have been around for a long time, but found a new lease of life with The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) about an evil nanny.
After her humiliated husband kills himself, an embittered pregnant widow loses her child, and embarks on a mission of vengeance against a woman and her family.Logline of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle
Domestic suspense was already back in fashion with the 1987 success of Fatal Attraction. Some commentators have no ideological issues with the Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and consider the opening scene of molestation followed by miscarriage an accurate insight into the lack of agency afforded women during the period of time around childbirth. Writer Amanda Silver inserted some feminist talking points and the story was taken as feminist (a trick utilised later by Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl, cf. The Cool Girl paragraph).
Others find The Hand That Rocks The Cradle hugely problematic. Cybill Shepherd turned down a role for feminist reasons. She calls these plots ‘Victim and Monster’ stories. Of course, someone else stepped in. The film got made. (Later, Susan Faludi, explained how this narrative does active harm.)
So, did that one story do active harm? Commentators aren’t impressed with the message that women who don’t stay in the home will see their families fall apart. So there’s that.
But then, in 2012, well-platformed Missouri representative Todd Akin spoke about an issue of which he knows nothing: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” You know that early 90s box office hit in which a woman is molested then miscarriage occurs? One two, miss a few, that plot point rests upon the same base level view. There’s a notion that orgasm causes pregnancy and that orgasm is always pleasurable. How widespread was this view, held by Atkin, in 2012? How widespread is it even now?
(Pleasure, desire and arousal are three different things. For more on that see the work of Emily Nagoski, who wrote Come As You Are. Hear Nagoski talk about this at the Embodied podcast.)
I’m with Susan Faludi on the damage done by Hollywood blockbuster The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. There is much, much more that can be said on that film, and much has been said already. I wish it had never been made. I’ll dedicate space here to Yiyun Li’s short story subversion of what TV Tropes calls The Babysitter From Hell.
There is another type of story, of which Mary Poppins is the tentpole nanny example. In these stories, a blow-in saviour arrives to make things whole again with the family unit. Then they disappear, onto the next family to fix. The Blow-in Saviour archetype is also a feature of the Western. In that case, the saviour is a man with a gun, and he’s come to restore order to a frontier town.
Part of the suspense of Yiyun Li’s “A Sheltered Woman” derives from requiring the reader to think about whether Auntie Mei is a Mary Poppins type or more of a Blow-in Saviour type.
SETTING OF A SHELTERED WOMAN
PERIOD — contemporary
DURATION — This nanny only stays in a house for a period of one month then moves on to the next one, in an endless repeating cycle. Within this story, there are references to ancient practices from ancient times, set imaginatively in China.
LOCATION — The story is set in the Bay Area of San Francisco. The husband is away on a business trip to Shenzhen. Auntie Mei had grown up in China and emigrated to America for marriage, though she took the expectations of marriage from China rather than expecting an emotionally close marriage idealised by Westerners:
Auntie Mei had not told her husband about [her mother and grandmother]; he would not have been interested, in any case—silly good man, wanting only a hardworking woman to share a solid life.“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
MANMADE SPACES/NATURAL SETTINGS — The house is a manmade space but brings the natural world ‘inside’, reflecting the marriage currently happening between contemporary culture and Ancient Chinese culture.
Auntie Mei left [the baby] on the changing table and looked out the window, enjoying, as she always did, a view that did not belong to her. Between an azalea bush and a slate path, there was a man-made pond, which hosted an assortment of goldfish and lily pads.A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li
Middle Eastern houses feature buildings with a courtyard in the middle to allow women to enjoy a taste of nature while also keeping them hidden. Architecturally, this courtyard is like Auntie Mei’s grandmother’s attic.
Notice how Auntie Mei at first thinks the egret near this pond — which she is paid to maintain — is a statue. But then it flies away.
Auntie Mei thought about the man who had made the sculpture. Of course, it could have been a woman, but Auntie Mei refused to accept that possibility. She liked to believe that it was men who made beautiful and useless things like the egret. Let him be a lonely man, beyond the reach of any fiendish woman.A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li
I’m reminded of the Pygmalion myth of Ancient Greece, a story which has been reused and repurposed many times over the centuries. There’s a theory that this is basically a story about a specically masculine wish-fulfilment fantasy: the wish to create human life. This is perhaps why Auntie Mei deduced the sculpture must have been made by a man, because women are busy enough creating real life, not imitations of life — and would also tie in with the whole birthing thing, and how men and women are in completely different worlds as soon as babies arrive. Literally, in this story: The father is on a different continent.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The technology is used symbolically. When the electrician returns to hook up a electric perimeter to the pond, for keeping the egret away, Auntie Mei touches it and says she “feels nothing”. The electrician confirms that she is not supposed to feel anything. If she did feel something she could sue him.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — Auntie Mei has infiltrated a household full of conflict. This is not a family unit but three individuals forced to live together. Auntie Mei is there because she is paid. The electrician takes Auntie Mei shopping because he is paid, though seems to hope it’s a date.
“A Sheltered Woman” is an example of a Fear of Engulfment story. Women across the ages have been terrified of pregnancy and childbirth (for good reason) and there exist many stories from antiquity which express that particular fear. Auntie Mei doesn’t even want to get inside someone else’s mind, or to have someone enter hers, so pregnancy is pretty much the physical equivalent of that particular fear. Although women can enjoy freedom from fear of pregnancy in the post-menopause years, for Auntie Mei, the psychological fear of engulfment remains.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — There’s a fairytale vibe to this story e.g. ‘teardrops fell into the steaming soup’. This feels like the beginning of some magic spell. This fairytale woman (Auntie Mei) juxtaposes against the modern world in which Chanel lives (herself with a consumerist name). Auntie Mei will never understand, nor accept, a modern concept such as ‘postpartum depression’. ““In our village, we say it’s bad luck to guess someone else’s dreams,” Auntie Mei said. Only ghosts entered and left people’s minds freely,” she says.
The soup had simmered all morning and had thickened to a milky white.A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li
Inferno; What Have I Done? – fearless accounts of postpartum psychosis
Catherine Cho and Laura Dockrill are painfully honest about the horrors they experienced as new mothers in the grip of a terrible illness
Milk is a life-giving, vital nutrient for mammals yet in this story it is presented as disgusting. There’s an underlying disgust of motherhood, felt by both Auntie Mei and especially by Chanel.
Yiyun Li uses the word ‘habitat’ in this story, not just to refer to ‘the physical place where one lives’ but in a deeper way, describing a ‘surrounding’ so much a part of a person that they take it with them when they die.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A SHELTERED WOMAN”
The story opens with a scene between a nanny from the ancient world and a young woman from the modern one. It is only after this scene, in which the old woman tries to feed the young one milky soup, that we get the backstory and setup. Some authors would have opened with, ‘Auntie Mei had worked as a live-in nanny for newborns and their mothers for eleven years.’ (Alice Munro is more inclined to open with backstory rather than making her readers wait.)
AUNTIE MEI’S EMOTIONAL DETACHMENT
“But you must love children, then?”
Oh, no, no, not this one or that one; not any of them. “Does a bricklayer love his bricks?” Auntie Mei asked. “Does the dishwasher repairman love the dishwashers?”“A Sheltered Woman”, Yiyun Li
Auntie Mei reminds me of something David Attenborough has said a number of times. Despite his life’s work around protecting animals, he is most definitely not an “animal lover”.
“But I’m not an animal lover,” he says emphatically. His face scrunches up in disdain. “Animal lover means sentiment; a cloying, anthropomorphising sentiment. I don’t love earth worms or spiders. They’re rivetingly interesting and they give me huge intellectual pleasure. And aesthetic pleasure, I suppose. But that’s a different thing altogether.”
That’s not the same as loving them? “No. It’s the word ‘love’ I don’t like. The phrase ‘animal lover’ – well, it just grates on me! That’s why I’m irritated when people use it on me. They say, Oh, you’re an animal lover!” He glowers. “I say, I am NOT an animal lover.”‘I’m not an animal lover’, interview with David Attenborough
We shouldn’t expect people who work with animals and children to “love” them, and yet our culture, at least officially, does seem to harbour that quiet expectation of childcare workers. The fact that Auntie Mei is able to remain so detached is in fact a strength. If she were to fall in love with each baby, she wouldn’t be able to be a first-month nanny and then move on.
The thought of facing a child who had once been an infant in her arms led to lost sleep; she agreed only when there was no other option, and she treated the older children as though they were empty air.A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li
There are philosophical discussions to be had around whether empathy is necessary when making decisions that affect human beings. It’s possible that a benevolently programmed artificial intelligence would make a much better job of running the world than any benevolent human. We are terribly susceptible to a number of cognitive biases, for example, caring more about people who are similar to ourselves and who we see often.
As far as Auntie Mei’s own emotional detachment is concerned, almost every psychological shortcoming has a plus side and a minus. Commonly, emotional detachment comes in handy in a capitalist society but becomes a barrier to personal satisfaction at the family and community level. Auntie Mei is, ultimately, alone in the world.
AUNTIE MEI’S ECONOMIC PRECARITY
That morning, a man had come to look at Chanel’s malfunctioning dishwasher. It had taken him only twenty minutes of poking, but the bill was a hundred dollars, as much as a whole day’s wages for Auntie Mei.“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
why on earth had she wanted two notebooks, when there’s not enough life to fill one?
She had liked the picture of flowers on the cover, purple and yellow, unmelted snow surrounding the chaste petals.A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
The word ‘chaste’ sticks out to me as a hint at the values Auntie Mei may hold. Babies are the inverse of chastity (babies rarely happen when chastity is involved) yet this is the thing Auntie Mei likes about the yellow and purple flowers on snow. Of course, ‘chaste’ also means ‘without unnecessary ornamentation; simple or restrained’ and we might interpret that meaning in reference to notebook ornamentation, but the ‘absence of sexual nature or intention’ part of the meaning is the more dominant. Auntie Mei probably also despises her ‘ledger’ because it feels like a symbol of capitalism. Yet baby-making is pretty much the opposite of capitalism. Babies require care and attention — ‘commodities’ not counted in a country’s GDP.
Does Auntie Mei secretly despise breeders? Is her line of work a matter of ‘know thy enemy’?
The full quote comes from the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu:
Know thy enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.The Art of War
The detail about the notebooks also tells the reader that Auntie Mei takes a dim view of excess, and considers even the purchase of two notebooks evidence of her own ‘greed’. What must she think of this family so consumerist that the Chinese background mother has even named herself after an expensive designer brand?
Auntie Mei has an automaton-ness about her, going unfeelingly from one nanny assignment to the next, each time doing the same mechanically good job, refusing to modify her plan for the individual. This sort of mechanical behaviour is utilised in both comedy and in horror. There are darkly comedic aspects to this short story, but the overwhelming feeling I get from Auntie Mei is horror. This demonstrates the versatility of this Mechanical Behaviour character trope; horror written badly can easily devolve into farce, but in this case, the reader remains anxious about whether this automaton nanny is about to go rogue.
What does Auntie Mei really want, deep down? We see some more of her humanity as the story progresses. She’s a straight-talker. Much of the humour comes from seeing Auntie Mei dish out some very nice one-liners:
If I could argue, I’d have become a lawyer
In this respect she’s like Doc Martin and House and other fictional characters (not all of them healthcare workers) who are highly competent, have no time for incompentence in others, and who are able to say the things we all sometimes wish we’d thought to say, if we hadn’t thought of a comeback as we descended the stairs.
(In 1703, one slang word for lawyer was ‘son of prattlement’.)
Director Curtis Hanson did have this to say about The Hand That Rocks The Cradle:
People discover who they are and what they’re all about by meeting their doppelgangers.
Hanson is describing how to create a good opponent in fiction. Yiyun Lee’s story uses the reflection character (or Shadow In The Hero), too.
We slowly get the idea that, emotion-free as she is, Chanel is the one with the real sang froid.
“I don’t want to nurse this thing anymore,” Chanel said.
This thing? “He’s your son.”
Notice how throughout the story Auntie Mei thinks much more than she says aloud. It requires noticing where the speech marks are placed. Every utterance is annotated inside her head. Or, annoted for the reader. Auntie Mei is in large part driving the reader response to this story. We, too, think “thing?” (A novel which utilises this same technique is The Bone People by Keri Hulme.)
Yiyun Li is making full use of unexpected emotional responses, as writers of lyrical short stories often do:
Auntie Mei picked up Baby, his weight as insignificant as the emotions—sadness, anger, or dismay—that she should feel on his behalf. Rather, Auntie Mei was in awe of the young woman. That is how, Auntie Mei said to herself, a mother orphans a child.“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
Despite her own mindful lack of emotion, I didn’t expect Auntie Mei would be ‘in awe’ of Chanel. (That said, ‘awe’ doesn’t necessarily have a morality attached. It more basically describes an emotion of being in front of something much bigger than ourselves, or something bigger than we can possibly hope to understand.)
Perhaps Auntie Mei’s reaction to Chanel has even surprised herself. This is how her own feelings begin to surprise her. This is the turning point at which Auntie Mei starts to feel something for this unloved baby. Since this is not what Auntie Mei wants, this makes Chanel a personal opponent.
As further evidence for Chanel as Auntie Mei’s ‘Shadow In the Hero’: When Chanel says, “You know what I hate about people? They like to say, ‘That will teach you a lesson.’ But what’s the point of a lesson? There’s no makeup exam when you fail something in life” I think this grim observation could just as easily come from Auntie Mei. Also, Chanel is considering abandoning her baby. Auntie Mei has done this exact thing 131 times before.
Now that Auntie Mei has started to feel something for a six-day-old baby, she warms a little to the electrician, who comes back to electrify the pond, that she pays him to take her out shopping.
She is also worried about the health and safety of the thieving egret who has been fishing in that precious pond.
Yiyun Li builds the story by gradually revealing how terrible of a family the baby has been born into. The kicker is the revelation of how Chanel came to be with her husband:
She had slept with an older married man to punish her father, who had himself pursued a young woman, in this case one of Chanel’s college classmates. The pregnancy was meant to punish her father, too, but also the man, who, like her father, had cheated on his wife. “He didn’t know who I was at first. I made up a story so that he thought I was one of those girls he could sleep with and then pay off,” Chanel had said. “But then he realized he had no choice but to marry me. My father has enough connections to destroy his business.”“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
When a story-within-a-story happens in the second half of a narrative, it’s usually to help us have a revelation of some kind. In this case we have the story of Auntie Mei’s grandmother, who ran away from her grandfather early in their marriage.
Auntie Mei’s grandmother had not gone far: all those years, she had stayed in the same village, living with another man, hiding in his attic during the day, sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night for a change of air. Nobody was able to understand why she had not gone on hiding until after her husband’s death. She explained that it was her wifely duty to see her husband off properly.“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
Is Auntie Mei the contemporary version of a Woman In The Attic? By constantly moving from house to house is she invisibilising herself? This is followed by the story of Auntie Mei’s own mother, who “had slowly starved herself to death, yet she never tired of watching, with an unblinking intensity, her daughter eat”. This could mirror the way Auntie Mei cares for the babies, metaphorically starving herself, even as she force feeds the mothers and sticks to rigid feeding schedules for the babies.
Here’s one of the tentpole sentences which clues us into the entire theme:
Auntie Mei wondered if knowing someone—a friend, an enemy—was like never letting that person out of one’s sight. Being known, then, must not be far from being imprisoned by someone else’s thought.“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
The dominant Western view is that it is better to be known. As evidence, I offer up the entire corpus of modern Western storytelling, seen most clearly in stories in which a character starts off unhappy because they are pretending to be someone they aren’t, but then, over the course of the narrative the mask comes off, they become their ‘true selves‘ (a WEIRD — Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic concept) and then they are happy.
For a WEIRD reading audience (notably America), Auntie Mei’s conclusion — that her grandmother and mother were ‘fortunate’ for ‘no one could claim to have known them’ is an unexpected conclusion for Auntie Mei to draw.
When she was younger, she had seen no point in understanding them, as she had been told they were beyond apprehension. After their deaths, they had become abstract. Not knowing them, Auntie Mei, too, had the good fortune of not wanting to know anyone who came after“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
The ‘sheltered’ of the title does not (of course) refer only to the lodgings Auntie Mei utilises while at her work, but also to her emotional state, and now, we learn more deeply, also refers to the guard she very deliberately keeps up to preserve her own sense of good ‘fortune’.
There is also a beautiful irony to the title ‘sheltered’. Usually, the phrase “sheltered woman” refers to a woman who has been kept away from the difficulties of the world. It is revealed that Auntie Mei has seen plenty. This new interpretation of the title asks readers to consider if there really is any such thing as a “sheltered woman” when to be locked in a (metaphorical) attic is to experience one of the most difficult things in the world. The most difficult things, after all, happen within the home (especially for women).
Auntie Mei does not want electrician Paul to tell her part of his life story because then she would know him. Nor does she want to her Chanel’s backstory about how she ended up with her much older husband. But people tell her anyway.
The light in the baby’s room is utilised symbolically:
It was past midnight, the lamp in her bedroom turned off. The night-light of swimming ocean animals on the crib streaked Baby’s face blue and orange. There must have been a time when her mother had sat with her by candlelight, or else her grandmother might have been there in the darkness. What kind of future had they wished for her?“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
This paragraph has two separate functions: This is Auntie Mei switching off her capacity to care too much about what happens to a baby born into such a family. By connecting the modern night-light to the candle of yesteryear, Auntie Mei is also in touch with her ancestry, both recent and ancient. We can’t know any of our ancestors, yet they were vital to our existence. So what if we can’t know them? And if we can’t know our ancestors, despite their unarguable importance, why is it so important to know the family who live concurrently alongside us?
Yiyun Li is also telling the story of an emigre, of constantly straddling two worlds, never feeling fully immersed in either one:
[Auntie Mei] had been brought up in two worlds: the world of her grandmother and her mother, and that of everyone else; each world had sheltered her from the other, and to lose one was to be turned, against her wish, into a permanent resident of the other.“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
If knowing someone makes that person stay with you forever, not knowing someone does the same trick: death does not take the dead away; it only makes them grow more deeply into you.“A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
We can deduce that Auntie Mei will live out the rest of her life in this way, avoiding being known, avoiding knowing others. The reader is asked to consider if, despite what WEIRD storytellers constantly tell us, this isn’t also a perfectly good way to find happiness.
The events of this story have tested her, because if she were ever going to feel deeply for a baby it would be this poor mite, born to a parents who are unlikely to properly love him.
Li’s story another take on the domestic suspense genre. But in contrast to the bloated corpus of stories which portray nannies and babysitters as evil, Yiyun Li brings a formiddable, emotionally cold nanny into the home, then subverts audience expectations by revealing a mother and family situation which is about as cold as it’s possible to get. The stone-cold nanny ends up looking delightful by contrast.
Why might this plot need subverting? Statistically, overwhelmingly, women should be far more afraid of romantically partnered men and step-fathers. Of course, we don’t all/always crave dangerous home truths in our fiction. It’s strangely more comfortable to imagine a murderous female nanny than the man who killed his partner last week, and the week before, and also the week before that, all the way back in time.
Stories both mirror and reflect realities. And here’s one reality: Women are overwhelmingly blamed for family break-ups , even when it’s a man who has made the decision to leave his own family. The evil nanny archetype is that old chestnut on steroids.
Children’s series often feature an episode with a nanny, who is feared and suspected byt he children but who pretty much always turns out to be very nice.