Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters and Image of Rebellious Women

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Image of Rebellious Women in Drabble’s The Seven Sisters (2002)

 By – Usha Rani Gupta (introduction after the paper), Vol. III, Issue. XXVIII, May 2017



The present paper presents the qualitative findings of the study that examines the image of rebellious women as illustrated in Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters (2002). In the light of Butler’s theory, the article illustrates how female protagonists such as Candida, Julia and Mrs. Barclay endeavour to improve their oppressed, stressed and discriminated condition, and also show new ways of living life that were not expected before. Rather women confront many hurdles in the path of their empowerment, but they do not surrender as they face them with robustness and valour showing their rebellious spirit. It exhibits women’s positive attitude towards their life till the end of the novel, in spite of having harsh experiences in their life. They hope at each moment that something better and desirable will eventuate in their life. Thusly, the novel demonstrates the female protagonists such as Candida, Julia and Mrs. Barclay as being undaunted, confident, optimistic, fearless and rebellious women.


Key Words: Candida Wilton, Julia, empowerment, Judith Butler and gender performativity.




Drabble’s The Seven Sisters (2002) deals with a certain question regarding women: who are they and how do they want to live in their life? The concept of identity is explored throughout the novel with the help of female protagonists. The novel enhances our apprehension concerning women; how they place themselves in society and how much they are compelled to act according to the standard of culture and society of which they are a part, and to what extent they are free to do what they want to be.

In the present research paper, whole attention will be centered on individual’s identity, namely one’s gender. Reading of the novel by using Butler’s insights impels to think in this direction why gender is binary, why certain traits are assigned to the body of male and female and why one is bound to be a masculine male and feminine female. The novel forced not to consider gender as biologically fixed as female characters of the novel were not bound to act in an anticipated manner. They showed resistance, against assigned norms of culture and society, in their performativity and behaviour. This thought presented in the novel encouraged to think about alternative ways of defining gender, ways that may free gender from binary categories and give options to multiple gender identities. These premises led to the theory of gender performativity formulated by Butler who advocated constructed nature of gender. Butler’s ideas could be fully explored in relation to The Seven Sisters as novel presents an implicit critique of the traditional concept of gender. Butler’s theoretical insights will be used here in discussion of the novel, especially in relation to gender performance in the novel.

Many critics have studied The Seven Sisters from various perspectives, but this study will bring some new perspectives in the portrayal of gender in Drabble’s famous work. Moreover, there will also be an important discussion on how Drabble creatively proposes the idea of androgyny in her text. She presents the spirit of rebellious women who are defying the norms of society to make their respectable position in prevailing culture. This study hopes to present a discussion of the representation of especially the female gender in the novel that deal with the issue not noticed before, and thus will be a valuable contribution to the growing amount of critical on the novel. Butler’s theoretical insights and other theorist’s stance concerning gender will help here to look differently at the concept of gender, and its connection to culture, society and the individual.

Application of Butler’s Theory on Drabble’s The Seven Sisters

The Seven Sisters of Drabble can be characterized as one of her most remarkable works. It is composed of four chapters: ‘Her Diary’, ‘Italian Journey’, ‘Ellen’s Version’ and ‘A Dying Fall’. The narrator of ‘Her Diary’ is Candida Wilton who writes on her laptop about her solitary and dull life spending in London after divorce.  She talks about her ex-husband Andrew Wilton, daughters and her friends, rather discerningly. ‘The Italian Journey’ is narrated by a third person and it is all about the journey of the seven sisters. ‘Ellen’s Version’ is the voice of Candida’s daughter Ellen who finds Candida’s diary after her death and comments on it. ‘A Dying Fall’ is the last part of the novel and the story reaches the climax in this section. Commenting on this part, Toplu says that the section shows that ‘Candida has not committed suicide, and she has been trying to relate the events through different lenses’ (2009, p.174).

Drabble in the novel presented female character Candida, who took bold decisions and steps to survive in a male dominated society going against to it. Toplu says that this fiction evolved ‘Candida Wilton’s quest for life after divorce and menopause coined as women’s third age, the age of ageing’ (2009, p.173). Candida’s suffering, exploitation, humiliation, oppression and even separation from her husband did not subdue her desire to live a life of her own in The Seven Sisters. After the divorce, Candida tried to carve out her identity as she asserted: ‘I shall remake my body and my soul . . . . Nobody knew of the exhilaration I felt when I realized that I would not have to live with Andrew for the rest of my life. Nobody knew of secret delight’ (Drabble, 2002, p.19). She joined the night classes on Virgil and purchased lottery tickets to build up her confidence and to keep herself busy. Also, there was the other main reason behind joining all those activities that she had an inclination to divert her attention from her past painful memories that were associated with her ex-husband and her loving daughters. Now, she was able to give expression to all her desires that were suppressed in the custody of her husband’s hegemony. Maglin in Cut Loose says that ‘Candida, who has determined to take control of her life, is about to go on a journey’ (2006, p.48). She is going with her female friends. Drabble’s use of ‘the term sisters is ironic because although her narrator Candida is a single child, she somehow maintains six friends’ (Toplu, 2009, p.175). Candida made a group of seven sisters for a world tour. In this group, she preferred those women who had similar experiences. It is true that absence of men makes women free to enjoy their lives. It is the circle of women where no secrets are kept. Women are free to talk about the issues concerning them. They feel more comfortable sharing their feelings with other female friends. That was the reason that Candida preferred only women going for the tour.

Candida tried to record her past experiences on the laptop in The Seven Sisters. She was a high tech girl, who did not think like an old fashioned woman that she was outdated to learn something new. She tried to use modern technology: ‘I switched on this modern laptop machine’ (Drabble, 2002, p.3). She knew how to operate it. So, she noted down her experiences in it. In this way, Candida experimented with the things that were available to her and enjoyed her life in a real sense in her later years after the divorce.  Now she was what Candida’s inner self wanted her to be. Since a long time, women were not able to enjoy their life as they desired and wanted. They were quite hesitated to do something new. They did not have courage and strength to raise their voice. They accepted every wrong considering it as their destiny, but life as nature does not go on unchanged. It is ever changing. A little ripple is created in the smooth flow of the water of life when women writers like Woolf, Beauvoir, and Millett exhort women to think about their condition. These feminists encouraged women to think about their state what they are and what they should be. Here, Candida in the novel seems confident and eager to know about herself. Allen says:

If gender is continually enacted and performed, then according to Butler, it is possible for individuals to alter their performances in ways that might subvert the heterosexist norms that govern its very production. Everything turns, in other words, on how we perform our gender (for, make no mistake about it, we are all compelled to perform in one way or another): if I perform the role of ‘woman’ timidly and faithfully my performance is likely to uphold heterosexist domination; if, on the other hand, I perform flamboyantly, irreverently, and parodically, my performance subverts such domination (1998, p.460).

Allen argues that Butler’s theoretical insights can help women to change their performativity. Moreover, her insights encourage women to defy their stereotypical norms.

Candida in The Seven Sisters moved to London to live there after her divorce. She faced great difficulties in purchasing her flat. She said:

I couldn’t afford anything grand, or anything in a nice district, so I explored grey areas, in Stamford Hill and Seven Sisters and Finsbury Park and Clissold Park and Cambervell and Brondesbury and Brockwell Park and Neasden.  I looked at dozen of studios, bedsitters and maisonettes and flats in areas of London that I had never visited. I had never even known their existence. Most of these places seemed profoundly alien and depressing to me, and I couldn’t begin to think of myself living in them. I found this apartment by accident, through a conversation with the owner of one of the nicer flats I looked at (Drabble, 2002, p.44).

Describing her flat and its location, Candida said:

I have two rooms and a bathroom here. It’s enough. And I have a spectacular cityscape view of motorway and railway and distant council high-rise and night sky and morning sky. The sky is different from the innocent Suffolk sky, but it is not always a deadly grey. At times it is awash with a lurid glow, with doomed and polluted sunrises and sunsets of orange and yellow and purple and bloody red. Although the stars are often obscured, I can watch the months and the seasons, and sometimes I can see the constellations. The great Bear, Cassiopeia, the Seven Sisters, the Swan. All these I have seen, or fancied I have seen. The new moon even now hangs near me in the darkest blues. And I can look down at the street life, of which there is much (Drabble, 2002, p.46).

She found newness in everything in London as she saw a new sky and a new moon, and was excited about what would happen in that city. She did not think it shameful for a woman to live alone in a flat. Rather she said: ‘it satisfies me’ (Drabble, 2002, p.40). Further, she said: ‘I am proud of my endurance in it, I am proud of the way I have parceled out my life and controlled the empty spaces and filled up the time. It has not been easy, but I have worked at it, and I have made a shape to my life’ (Drabble, 2002, p.40). Her situation was the same like Frieda’s in The Witch of Exmoor. Both Frieda and Candida spent their later years in their own manner as they wanted. Both were ready to fly into the world. The difference was that Frieda in The Witch of Exmoor left her family while in The Seven Sisters, Candida’s family left her. Candida said: ‘I knew something exciting would happen to me in London. I still know it. It will. It will come. It will come soon’ (Drabble, 2002, p.44). It is palpable that the desire to lead an independent life is an innate urge in women at all times. Their true identity is smothered by patriarchal culture through assigning their experiences to the margins of existence. To find out who they are and what they have lost, it is imperative to challenge male dominated culture to make their position respectable in our society. There is the compelling need for women to construct a new cultural environment undermining their gender stereotypes so that they can empower themselves. Butlerian abstractions succor women to defy their gender stereotypes. Jagger says that for Butler, subject is the result of power:

Power that is formative of psyche is social in origin and so open to resistance and change. Although the route to change and transformation continues to be through resistance and resignification, the point now is that the foreclosures, exclusions and disavowals that operate through the psyche to form identity are social in origin, and thus contingent, politically motivated and, most importantly, historically revisable (2008, p.99).

Thus, Butler’s hypothesis helps women to make their place respectable in society. It is significant to note that Drabble tells the stories of women who are not stereotypical females, or submissive, self-sacrificing and subdued individuals. Her heroines are self-directed, who show their courage in countering hegemonic discourse, in patriarchal culture and society.

            Candida gets strong after separation from Andrew in The Seven Sisters. She thought that there was no need to wear Andrew’s engagement ring, no need to declare her marital status. She said: ‘I don’t really want it now. Do I’ (Drabble, 2002, p.54). Comparing herself to a nun, she said: ‘As a nun enters a convent in search of her god, so I entered my solitude. I felt fear, and I felt hope’ (Drabble, 2002, p.54). She felt that she was like ‘Alice in wonderland’ (Drabble, 2002, p.55), and wanted to explore more about this mysterious world. She was free like a bird, who did not believe in suffering submissively, and used all the means to achieve joy and happiness in her life. She was willing to face hardships in her path of empowerment but did not want to give up. Instead, she continued to challenge patriarchal society and its norms. Here, Candida is contrasted with weak and submissive traditional women. Candida appears strong, confident and courageous enough to get emancipated from the orthodox role of a woman. She did not need the protection and umbrella of a male partner to survive alone in her life.  Her performance in her later years showed how a woman could manage efficiently without a man. Butler in Gender Trouble also says:

If identities were no longer fixed as the premises of a political syllogism, and politics no longer understood as a set of practices derived from the alleged interests that belong to a set of ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old. Cultural configurations of sex and gender might then proliferate or, rather, their present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex (male/female), exposing its fundamental unnaturalness (1999, p.189-190).

Drabble, through the female protagonist Candida wants to propose that woman, can challenge injustice if she wants so.

Candida in The Seven Sisters gets injured in an accident at the end of the novel. Expressing her feelings towards life, she says: ‘I have no home. This is not my home. This is simply the place where I wait. The sky, tonight, is streaked with blood above the dying city. It bleeds for me now that I bleed no more. I am filled with expectation. What is it that is calling me?’ (Drabble, 2002, p.307). Candida’s words reveal that she misses her real home where she lived with her ex-husband and daughters, but she accepts the reality and faces the world as it comes to her. She makes herself bold to face challenges. In her sixties, she is still waiting and hopeful of finding some destination because she thinks that life is full of possibilities. She does not want to miss her chance at any cost. Thus, she does not lose hope.

Not only Candida but also there is another female character, Mrs. Barclay in The Seven Sisters who was multi-talented and had experience doing odd jobs:

She’s been a waitress, a barmaid, a cook, a minicab driver, and a housekeeper. She’s worked in a theatre and auction house and a fashion house, and she’s been paid to collect money for charity on railway stations. She’s worked on a switchboard for a firm that sells fake handmade reclaimed bricks. She has a restless energy that might explain some of this strange pattern of employment . . . She plays life as it comes and learns as she goes (Drabble, 2002, p.118).

She was a ‘very resourceful woman’ and enjoyed her life ‘living by her wits’ (Drabble, 2002, p.119). Through her female protagonist Mrs. Barclay, Drabble wants to depict that women are not only perfect in housekeeping, but they can also perform many other jobs with perfection that are not expected of them. They are no less than men. They are equally capable of multiple tasks.

There is another female character, named Julia in The Seven Sisters. Her interest in writings made her a novelist. Her novels were ‘about adultery, sexual triangles, sexual foursomes, and erotic and carnal permutations’ (Drabble, 2002, p.90). She was stressed to think why critics criticised her novels in a negative way. People criticised her, calling her ‘a wicked woman’ (Drabble, 2002, p.25), because she behaved against the norms of gender stereotypes, which are constructed based on a particular society’s perception of sexual difference in a way that the internalization of these stereotypes as patterns of behaviour and ideal identities reinforces the discourses that claim that these norms are natural, possessing innate characteristics. This is a process of socialization of individuals promoted by social institutions. These stereotypes establish intelligible and unintelligible genders. Intelligible genders are those that maintain continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice and desire, and those genders that do not maintain these are called unintelligible genders. Here, Julia did not care how she was expected to behave. She was bold and courageous. She did what she desired. She did not feel shy to discuss sexual matters in her novels and in her life with others. In our culture, these things are not expected from women. Beauvoir in The Second Sex argues that ‘one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one’ (1949, p.281). One becomes a woman always under a cultural compulsion to become one. Butler in Gender Trouble says that for Beauvoir, ‘gender is constructed’ (1999, p.12). She has extended Beauvoir’s claim that woman is something we do rather than something we are. Butler says:

The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of ‘identities’ cannot ‘exist’–that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not ‘follow’ from either sex and gender (1999, p.24).

Thus, cultural matrix determines which gender identities are intelligible and also decides which ones are unacceptable. Butler says:

‘Intelligible’ genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire. In other words, the specters of discontinuity and incoherence, themselves thinkable only in relation to existing norms of continuity and coherence, are constantly prohibited and produced by the very laws that seek to establish causal or expressive lines of connection among biological sex, culturally constituted genders, and the ‘expression’ or ‘effect’ of both in the manifestation of sexual desire through sexual practice (1999, p.23).

In other words, cultural norms determine consistency constitute intelligible genders.


            In short, Butler’s theory assists women to improve their oppressed and discriminated situation. Butler’s theoretical insights aid in comprehending the novel. Moreover, this work is cardinal for those who are interested in women’s studies and their struggle to gain equality and egalitarianism. Finally, the paper attempts to bring relevant contributions of current knowledge to the topics it investigates. Of course, the field is open to future researchers, but present study will definitely help them in comprehending the aim and thrust of the novelist.



Introduction to the Author:

U. R. Gupta is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala. The title of her research project is ‘Gender and Performativity: A Critique of Margaret Drabble’s Selected Fiction’, on which she is working under the supervision of Dr. Sharanpal Singh since 2010. In her project, she is exploring gender and performativity concerns in Drabble’s selected fiction using theoretical inputs of Judith Butler. Her research interest is in feminist theory, gender theory, and contemporary fiction.




Allen A. (1998). Power trouble: Performativity as critical theory. Constellations 5(4):456-         471.

Beauvoir, S. de. (1949). The second sex. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bourdieu P. (1996). The state nobility: Elite schools in the field of power. Trans. Lauretta            C. Clough. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Butler J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge. (Originally published 1990).

Drabble M. (2002). The seven sisters. London: Viking.

Jagger G. (2008). Judith butler: Sexual politics, social change and the power of the performative. New York: Routledge.

Maglin N. B. (2006). Cut loose: (mostly) Older women talk about the end of (mostly) long-         term relationships. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

Toplu S. (2009). Women’s third Age: The seven sisters by Margaret Drabble. Brno Studies in English 35(1):173-184.

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