Feminist Long Fiction (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Feminist long fiction features female characters whose quest for self-agency leads to conflict with a traditionally masculinist and patriarchal society. These novels have been harshly criticized and dismissed—and even ridiculed—for their nontraditional female characters.
Feminist ideology in the Western world traces its roots to the late eighteenth century. One particular work considered foundational to feminism is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), by English writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Not until the twentieth century, more than one hundred years later, would women begin to reap some of the benefits of a long campaign for basic human rights. Feminism led to radical changes for women in politics, the public sphere, the workplace, the home, and the cultural realm, including the arts and literature. Popular literature, especially, began to reflect women’s previously silenced voices.
As early as the end of the seventeenth century, however, women were publishing works of literature. Aphra Behn (1640-1689), likely the first Englishwoman to support herself through writing, published the highly popular Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave (1688), a prose romance. This novel was the first in English to express sympathy for the plight of slaves.
The eighteenth century (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Fiction, a genre that did not fully develop until the eighteenth century, provided a perfect vehicle for women who sought a voice through writing. The first long fiction in England consisted of what may generally be termed “romances.” Men traditionally received credit for developing long fiction and, eventually, the novel form. Touted examples include Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel, Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741), and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). However, earlier novels were written by women, a fact not widely acknowledged until the twentieth century. Mary de la Rivière Manley (c. 1670-1724) published The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazians in the early eighteenth century (1705). The novel is a version of the roman à clef. This type of fiction featured real-life personalities thinly disguised as its characters. Eliza Haywood (c. 1693-1756), a highly political figure, also wrote romances, including The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753). She is now frequently mentioned as an important figure in the development of the novel.
The nineteenth century (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
The nineteenth century became a golden age of writing for women. Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote seven novels, often called novels of manners, that parody the ludicrous activities of genteel society and criticize inequitable social rules. Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Persuasion (1818), and Sanditon (1925) uncover the oppressive lives of women, including confining environments, a shameful lack of education, and pitiful dependence upon male relatives for survival. Austen’s Northanger Abby (1818) satirizes as sentimental its heroine’s love for the gothic genre, fiction that offers readers mysterious castles or mansions with secret passages, dark shadowy beings, a damsel threatened by death, a hero with an obscure past, and visions and ghosts.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) would rejuvenate the public’s appreciation for the gothic in her 1818 novel Frankenstein. Rather than emphasize the traditional elements of the gothic, Shelley produced a complex psychological study of her characters, imbuing her horror and science-fiction story with disturbing imagery of aborted creations and multiple deaths. Feminist critics link these elements to Shelley’s real-life experiences.
By midcentury, Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) were producing novels featuring a new hero based on the Romantic ideals of the English poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Named for the poet and the heroes of his poetry, the Byronic hero most generally had a brooding, dark, independent, and sometimes abusive personality. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) includes a Byronic hero in the form of Edward Rochester. More important, however, the novel introduces a never-before-seen heroine in the shape of a plain, small governess, whose values for truth and justice lead to her rejection of the romantic attentions of Rochester, her master. The character of Jane undercuts the popular female stereotypes of fiction: the angel of the house, the “invalid,” or the whore.
Although Charlotte Brontë’s novel was well received by her contemporaries, Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, also published in 1847, was not. With its metaphysical suggestions that bordered on the gruesome and with an abusive, vengeful Byronic hero, its messages proved too strong for its time (especially so because they came from a woman). By the next century, however, this novel took its rightful place in the canon not only of feminist long fiction but also long fiction in general.
The twentieth century (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Feminist fiction writer Kate Chopin (1851-1904) published The Awakening in 1899, a novel that many libraries refused to shelve, despite Chopin’s earlier popularity as a writer of “traditional” fiction. Her book shocked readers with its heroine who took pleasure in sexual relations and its suggestion of the connections between the imagination, the artist, and sex. The hostile criticism it received centered on its heroine’s rejection of the traditional oppressive role of wife and mother, causing even Chopin’s hometown library in St. Louis, Missouri, to ban the book.
In 1920, the year women won the vote in the United States, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) published The Age of Innocence. She became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the novel in 1921, even though the work focuses on society’s inequitable treatment of women.
As Wharton’s career flourished in the United States, the English feminist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who was also an essayist and editor, also enjoyed popularity. She began her publishing career in 1915 with the novel The Voyage Out, which required seven years of work. In early adulthood, Woolf studied Greek, an unusual subject for a young woman of her time; taught at a college for working women; performed menial chores for the suffrage movement; and wrote for the Times Literary Supplement, a prestigious publication. All these experiences influenced her feminism.
In Night and Day (1919), Woolf shaped a heroine not unlike herself, who had experienced the trials of a young female writer. After Jacob’s Room (1922), Woolf produced a highly influential novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Departing from traditional novel structure, Woolf designed an analysis of post-World War I London society by moving, over a twenty-four-hour period, from her heroine’s point of view to that of Septimus Warren Smith, a kind of insane alter ego for Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), often studied by feminist critics, critiques the...
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A female aesthetic (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
With the exodus of men fighting the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, American and English women entered the workforce in record numbers to occupy positions other than that of the traditional nurse, teacher, or secretary. As women’s roles in the world changed, so did the characterizations of women in novels. Female writers began to connect their work and their lives. They discovered a number of disparities between their own ambitions, ingenuity, and creativity on one hand and the limited, often secondary, roles assumed by the majority of traditional female fictional characters on the other hand. This reality was easily explained, as the majority of novelists were white men. By the mid-twentieth century, a plethora of long fiction by women began to appear, with realistic female characters. Women’s fiction transformed from products of imitation of a male aesthetic to protests against that aesthetic, eventually becoming self-defining works of literature.
The success of these new novelists was propelled by the work of feminist literary critics, especially scholars in academia. In the 1960’s, critics began questioning the characterizations of women as either angels or monsters. They also questioned the representation of women in popular literature written by men and, most important, refused to accept the exclusion of women from literary history. Their diligence in rediscovering female novelists from previous centuries and decades helped propel authors such as Woolf, George Sand (1804-1876), George Eliot (1819-1880), and West to their rightful place in the literary canon.
Feminist critics also traced the historical connections of recurring images, themes, and plots in women’s writing that reflected their social and psychological experience in a culture dominated by men. One recurring image, for example, is that of the caged bird, which represents the suppression of female creativity or the physical and emotional imprisonment of women in general. Slowly, writings by women began to be accepted not only in the classroom but also the marketplace. Virago Press, which publishes the writings of women, reprinted, for instance, West’s novels in affordable editions. While her work in its own day was deemed “too intellectual,” feminist critics helped define a new study and a new appreciation of these works. In addition, the critical analyses of the aesthetic values that appeared in many of the novels that had long been considered classics led to a newly defined feminist novel.
Closely related to the formation of a feminist aesthetic was the development of a black women’s aesthetic. Novels by African American women from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), were reissued after decades of neglect. Hurston’s novel—which tells the story of a young black woman involved in three abusive marriages who eventually finds redemption through her own strength and beliefs and through...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Acampora, Christa Davis, and Angela L. Cotten, eds. Unmaking Race, Remaking Soul: Transformative Aesthetics and the Practice of Freedom. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Collection of essays on the power of creativity—including writing—to transform the lives of women of color. Argues for the importance of “aesthetic agency” to literature and other forms of creative experience.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Classic text that considers nineteenth century...
(The entire section is 428 words.)