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Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale

We follow the story of two sisters, Vianne Rossignol Muriac and Isabelle Rossignole, in WWII France. The sisters aid the resistance in…various ways. I won’t go into TOO much detail because I want all of y’all to go read it ASAP.


We have the older sister, Vianne; a rule follower and everything we are taught that women should be. Kind, motherly, ladylike. The younger sister, Isabelle, is rebellious, outspoken, not particularly interested in any of the things that are considered *socially acceptable* for young ladies.


The sisters, because of their major personality differences and their kind of traumatic childhood, they don’t get along super well. Vianne ends up allowing a Nazi officer to commandeer her home, where she’s raising her daughter alone while her husband is at war fighting the Nazis. Isabelle is forced to flee Paris, where she lives with their father; at this point she joins the Resistance and becomes known as the Nightingale.


I don’t know about you, but I love a good WWII Resistance story. Every woman who defied societal norms AND the Nazis can get it.


So that’s what I’m here to talk about today; the book’s exploration of gender, identity, and the expectations of women imposed by society. During the early pages of the book, one of the sisters narrates: “It’s a fact that women are useless in war, their job is to wait for the men’s return” (Hannah, pgs. 26-27)


Vianne and Isabelle represent every single woman who experiences war; those who take part, those who fight, those who survive and those who die. They represent the women who fight and who have to avoid death in a very active sense, and those who have to play a more difficult and more nuanced game behind the scenes.


Isabelle is bold, willing to fight what she believes is wrong and defy an authoritarian regime.. These are all traits celebrated in men. Because she’s a woman though, she is called rebellious (in a bad way), she’s called hard to deal with, and she’s considered incapable of fighting as an actual *official* soldier in the war; thus, becoming a member of the guerrilla resistance.


Isabelle is constantly trying to be seen as “more than a girl”; as more than this thing that’s holding her back. And that’s a really interesting thing too; Isabelle doesn’t hate being female, she’s pretty fine with being a girl. I think she quite enjoys some aspects of it. What she hates is the way being SOCIETY makes being female a burden. Something restrictive and difficult in so many ways; something that holds women back from doing the things that they might want to do.


So Isabelle wants to be so much “more than a girl” in the best way; she wants to be capable of things than society does not expect from women because of its closed mindedness. Isabelle wants the feminist dream, basically; to just be allowed to be herself and do what she wants, to be considered equally capable, while also being a woman. And Isabelle proves herself.


She is also able to use her gender to her advantage, though, because the Nazis don’t expect resistance fighters to be female. She’s able to LITERALLY fly right beneath their noses, doing things that if she had been a man would have easily gotten her caught and killed in no time. Being a girl literally saves her life at one point, actually.


Vianne, on the other hand, represents doing everything *right* by society and the rules. Vianne represents traditional femininity and feminine values; she’s a mother and a wife, she’s obedient and doting; she’s a school teacher and a good friend. She goes with the flow at first, as a Nazi officer commandeers her home (a grand old farm house) for his own because it’s the grandest in the countryside village. She is obligated, by societal expectations of womanhood and their power disparity, to provide meals and comfortable accommodations for him. She has to live with the shame of knowing that this man is living under her roof while her husband fights him at war and her village suffers around her.


Vianne also has to live with the knowledge, later, that her little sister is also actively fighting everything that this man stands for; and Vianne has to work desperately to hide that from him, in order to protect her baby sister and her little girl. Vianne’s best friend is Jewish, and has to do everything she can to protect her, while also protecting herself. She has a lot going on, and let me tell you; Kristin Hannah has done an absolutely impeccable job of making you feel every single emotion.


I think that Vianne is the perfect example of how even if a woman does every single thing she is told to do, every single thing she is supposed to; even if a woman doesn’t fight, isn’t difficult, is always ladylike and never makes herself a problem… it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t protect her from terrible things, from devastation, from the ravages of war that are so often reserved for the conquered women.


And Isabelle is the perfect example of doing everything you can to do the right thing in spite of who you are; of risking your life, of loving fiercely, and of helping as much as you possibly can… Isabelle is the embodiment of “no good deed goes unpunished”. She doesn’t die by torture, she isn’t shot down by Nazi border patrol, she achieves absolutely unmatched successes in aiding the resistance and she does make an incredible impact; but it’s not enough for her to get her own happy ending.


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