A Biography

By Pamela Norris

New York Univ. $29.95. 496 pp.

"Eve" is a terribly uneven but mostly fascinating book, at its best recalling Jack Miles's "God: A Biography" or Gregg Easterbrook's "Beside Still Waters," that wonderful exploration of God's changing disposition through the eons. At its worst, "Eve" reads like a bad doctoral dissertation, but the best redeems the worst consistently, and makes the reader think once again about old, mostly insoluble problems.

Pamela Norris examines the story of Eve and most other mythological women, from pre-Christian figures like Clytemnestra, Psyche and Penelope up to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and some distraught heroine of Angela Carter's who subverts sexuality so much, dodging the traditional burdens of femininity, that she ends up remarking: "My bride will become my child's father." This on Page 398, close to the end of this long tale of female rebellion, male suppression and centuries of bewildered human blaming, as men and women alike strive to come up with a narrative that will give humanity a satisfactory explanation about why we are the way we are, why there's so much pain and suffering on the Earth, why the sun is so hot and snow so cold and food so scarce, why men so often feel the need to kill, and why childbirth hurts so much.

In Judeo-Christian terms, of course, it's all Eve's fault and, by extension, every woman's fault. Everyone knows that in Genesis 1, God created the Earth, sun and moon, plants and animals, finishing up with Adam, his best creation. But in Chapter 2 man gets lonesome and God creates woman out of Adam's rib. The first couple spend an idyllic (boring?) time in the Garden of Eden until that gossipy, overly familiar serpent chats with Eve, suggesting that if she eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she and her husband will "be as gods." Who could say no to such a suggestion? Eve eats, gives some to Adam, God gets miffed, and that's the beginning of inconvenient life as we know it; hard work, infectious diseases, early death, limitless sorrow.

This is a feminist biography, but Pamela Norris is eminently fair about the men who wrote the Old Testament, those rabbis who were fond of praying: "Praised be God that he has not created me a Gentile! Praised be God that he has not created me a woman! Praised be God that he has not created me an ignoramus!" She gives them full credit--not for having something against women in the first place, but for looking at the impenetrable strangeness of things as they are, and trying to figure out the reason, the explanation for why we live the way we do, why we all occupy our respective places in the universe. And man, watching the process of pregnancy, childbirth, lactation and the beginning all over again of that process, might be forgiven for thinking--praying, even--thank God I'm not a woman!

Because men were writing the books and making up the stories, the author remarks, it's only common sense that women would get the blame for every little thing that ailed us. Norris goes backward into pagan times, citing Pandora (who opened a jar, not a box), unleashing a host of tribulations on an unsuspecting world. She examines Medea, driven by circumstance and her husband to murder her children. She quotes Socrates, at his wit's end about whether living with a woman is worth it: "On the one hand loneliness, childlessness, the dying out of your stock . . . on the other eternal worry, one quarrel after another, her dower cast in your face, the haughty disdain of her family, the garrulous tongue of your mother-in-law, the lurking paramour and worry as to how the children will turn out."

Life is tough! Men and women don't get along very well, and the story of their disharmony is constant. In ancient times, the teacher Ben Sira wrote: "A woman's spite changes her appearance, and makes her face as grim as any bear's." Prisoners of their biology, women attract; men lust and then blame women for it. (Well, whom do you think they would ever blame? Themselves?)

This "biography," then, written mostly by men, until around the 15th century, is crammed with their warnings about women; admonishments, ultimatums, tantrums. They are the diaries, in a sense, of men at the end of their rope. If women would only shut up! Be silent! Stay at home! Stop gossiping! Stop giggling at men behind their backs! Stop using eye shadow and wearing bracelets and spending so much time dressing up! (But then, one rabbi interjects worriedly, if a wife doesn't look as good as she can, the husband will divorce her; then what?)

Why do women smell so strange? Why do they spend so much time with the kids, or weeping, or looking out the window? Why don't they just accept the fact that they're responsible for all the evil in the world and spin a little more, get up earlier, be suitably sorry for it all?

Meanwhile, time passed, the wheel of reproduction irrevocably turned. Christ was born; Mary became the redeeming counterpart to Eve. Early Christians--some of them--rejected lust, embraced celibacy and prepared for the imminent End of the World. Two thousand years later, mankind is still waiting, looking at his allegorical, metaphorical watch.

The first half of this biography is tenderly funny and intelligently compassionate. In the second half, Norris takes refuge in "lit crit," paraphrasing endless examples of novels and poems and essays about Eve, the Virgin and the female in general. Again, since human history was written by men, she writes, women get all the dumb "plots." No adventures like Ulysses and all the other adventurers down through the days--only wife, lover, mother plots.

But, excuse me, didn't biology come first, before the plots? One thing feminism hasn't begun to adequately figure out is: Who takes care of the kids while the women (or men) are out finding themselves? Early Christians thought of celibacy as a way out; in contemporary life we have the birth control pill, but have things changed so much since Socrates groaned about whether it was worse to be childless or trapped by family? Women appear to be the ones still having babies, and men remain at their wits' end, while women put on some lipstick, go to college, work, have their kids, look out the window and ponder what in the world it is we're supposed to be doing now.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.