I do not know how to write about Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things without gushing. I really love this book! It’s been awhile since I curled up with such a big, fat, 19th-century-ish novel and found myself swept away so pleasurably in the story.
I call this a 19th-century-ish novel for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is set in the 19th century. The main character, Alma Whittaker, was born in 1800, so as her story progresses, so does the century. The Signature, like many 19th-century novels, is grand in scope, covering not only the entire life of its protagonist, but also grapples with some of the century’s major ideas, most notably the theory of evolution.
Alma is an amateur biologist. (She is an amateur not because she lacks the training or rigor of university scientists, but because she is a woman and lacks the proper credentials.) She loves studying nature, and eventually specializes in mosses. That may sound like a rather dry premise for a novel, but Gilbert manages to make it fascinating. The novel is not just about moss, however. It is also about love, sexual desire, ambition, regret, and even contains a jaunt to Tahiti.
I enjoyed many things about The Signature of All Things, but I think the best part is the protagonist Alma Whittaker. Alma is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 19th century. Alma is not a physically beautiful woman, and men are not attracted to her. She is, however, ferociously intelligent, and her parents encourage her to develop her mind to its fullest potential.
Because of her mind and her keen interest in studying the world around, Alma is able to find contentment and even happiness in her life. As she notes here:
“I think I have been the most fortunate woman who ever lived. My heart has been broken, certainly, and most of my wishes did not come true. I have disappointed myself in my own behavior, and others have disappointed me. I have outlived nearly everyone I have ever loved. . . I have not had an illustrious career. I had one original idea in my life—and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given me a chance to be known—but I hesitated to put it forth, and thus I missed my opportunity. I have no husband. I have no heirs. I once had a fortune, but I gave it away. . . I do not think I will live to see another spring. . . Surely you are asking yourself now—why does this miserably unlucky woman call herself fortunate?”
“I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world. As such, I have never felt insignificant. This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so—for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities. . . All I ever wanted was to know this word. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history—added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.” (497)
It seems to me that mainstream American culture gives women the message that the path to a satisfying life is narrow. First of all women have to be beautiful. Or, if not beautiful, at least reasonably attractive. Second, women need to have husbands. Third, women must have children. Women are allowed to have a career, if they must, but it is optional and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The purpose of a career, of course, is to make as much money as possible. Other considerations are considered frivolous.
And that’s it. That’s the path for happiness. Given the extraordinary diversity of women, with all of our different interests, strengths, and weaknesses, I’ve always found the narrowness of this prescription ridiculous. For that reason, I enjoy finding out about women (real or fictional) who defy the path and yet lead satisfying lives. Alma Whittaker is a great example of such a woman and I think young women need to have more examples like her to emulate.
In the end, though, what makes The Signature of All Things such a great read is simply that Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful storyteller. Her success with Eat, Pray Love was no fluke. This lady knows how to write!