About the author:
Despite opting to study music technology after high school, and now being in my second year of 3D Animation and CGI here at Dawson, I’ve always been certain that in a not-so-distant alternate universe, a version of me is pursuing either creative writing or journalism. It’s unfortunate that English classes usually end up pretty low on my list of priorities these days, since my core classes have been so intense, but I’m still grateful for the push to read a book and write about it! This particular essay was written in a Book Club class, which I quite enjoyed since I would love to join a book club as an extra curricular, anyway!
The Lonely Hearts Hotel: How to survive as a woman
By Jamie Lavin
For Book Club, with Prof. Mary Gossage
In The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill, the main character, Rose, represents the performance that women need to enact to succeed in a patriarchal society. Women feel obligated to numb their emotional reactions to claim any power in an incredibly misogynistic world. The novel predominantly takes place during the Great Depression, at which time women are expected to marry, bear children, and accomplish very little of note for themselves. Rose eventually becomes a wealthy business owner, but she is only able to do so after becoming the mistress of a crime lord, stoically moving past her three miscarriages, and ordering a hitman to murder her ex-lover. Her emotional reactions and sense of self-worth are put on the back burner in favour of following whatever path might guarantee her survival and success. In this way, she represents a choice most women must face: whether to remain true to oneself or neglect one’s emotions in order to thrive.
As a young woman, Rose is expected to marry and allow her husband to provide for her, but her desire for independence takes her on a significantly more dangerous path. Despite societal expectations, she is “curious to see what would happen to her if no man would marry her” ( O’Neill 102). Losing one’s virginity out-of-wedlock is likened to being ‘ruined’, which Rose is almost romantically drawn to, feeling that she has a “strange calling” to become something greater than a housewife (102). This is what prompts her to seduce Mr. McMahon, the father of the children she is nannying, and a local crime lord. She charms him in a highly dramatic manner, pretending to be a kitten, dominantly ordering him around, kissing a banana in front of him, and roleplaying as two women gossiping about him, with a mop as her acting partner. She approaches their romance as a sort of game, similar to the make-believe acts she would perform at the orphanage in which she was raised. Though he terminates her employment as a governess, he still financially supports her for quite some time, and she uses him and his connections to learn about booking performances in entertainment venues. In this way, she trades her status as an independent but powerless woman, for the wealth and opportunity granted by being a mistress to an influential businessman. However, upon telling her she can never return to his house or see his children, she realizes the severity of gambling her virginity for power, calling herself “demented” (116), “a pervert” (116), and second-guessing that all of her make-believe acts were really “invoking the devil” (117). She later realizes that being a mistress is a full-time, “horrific job” (157), and that despite having the opportunity to act “as if she were a member of an empowered class” (361), being McMahon’s lover was a type of sex work. Thus, this chapter of her life shows that women in the 1930’s were more or less only able to become varying types of sex workers— whether that be a working-class wife, a mistress, or a prostitute.
Rose experiences significant hardship throughout her life, but she is unable to grieve properly, instead needing to push through her pain to secure her survival. Over the course of her life, she suffers three miscarriages but quickly represses her grief deep into her subconscious in favour of pursuing greatness. Her first child would have been McMahon’s, and although she was quite depressed while pregnant, she throws herself into learning the ins and outs of his business shortly after the miscarriage. The realization that she had narrowly escaped being attached to McMahon forever prompted her to push herself towards finding knowledge and success on her own. However, her lack of acknowledgement of the traumatic experience likely hardened her and disconnected her from her emotions. Upon leaving McMahon, she begins working as a porn actress, one of the few jobs available to women at the time, and has a second miscarriage, this time admitting she’s “devastated that [the baby is] gone” (210), but still immediately launching into a new professional project, this time visiting all the clowns in the city in search of her lost childhood love, Pierrot. Her final miscarriage occurs after marrying Pierrot, and again, they experience a very brief moment of grief together, (with Pierrot seeming significantly more distraught than Rose, as by this point she had “already been through” two other similar losses,) before commencing organization of an enormous touring circus show256). Three miscarriages would be incredibly taxing on a woman, but due to a strong motivation to succeed and little opportunity to take time for herself, Rose presses on with her life.
Rose begins her life as a beacon of light and creativity, but her path to success in a misogynistic civilization disconnects her from her sense of morality. By the time she and Pierrot are performing in New York, her ambition has distracted her from her love of storytelling and made her more “interested in negotiating with gangsters” than focusing on the show (324). When Pierrot realizes she has decided to have McMahon killed to take control of his crime syndicate, he calls her “monstrous” and “[d]iabolical.” (342). Even though McMahon has also hired a hit on Rose, which makes his death necessary for her own survival were she to return to Montreal, Pierrot attempts to convince her to tour the United States with him instead. Despite the opportunity to keep blood off her hands, she rejects Pierrot’s suggestion in favour of “a chance to run the streets and be a very wealthy woman” (342), seeing the chance to achieve respect and power as more important than retaining her moral rightness. This results in Pierrot leaving her, which prompts her to realize she has “fallen from grace” (361).
The Lonely Hearts Hotel brings focus to the lack of choice offered to women in the 1930s and how it seemed the only path to any sort of success was through a combination of male exploitation and a disconnect from emotional reactions and morality. As a youth, Rose is frequently described as beautiful and naive, full of life and joy, and throughout the novel, on her quest for respect; her open heart is crushed, and her true love is lost. As a rejection of the boring dependent reality expected of women, she pursues danger and a life of crime, at the cost of her innocence. Consequently, she becomes a metaphor for all women seeking success in a toxic patriarchal society. Her life becomes a performance in itself, wherein her emotional reactions are shelved, and her eventual success is reliant on ordering the murder of an ex-lover. To achieve respect in a misogynistic society, women need to suppress their emotions and morality.
O’Neill, Heather. The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Harper Perennial, 2019.