Claiming in her introduction that “androgyny seeks to liberate the individual from the confines of the appropriate,” Heilbrun sets out to find examples of this liberating impulse in Western thought and literature. Moving freely between cultures and through time, she homes in on specific examples that prove her point, often contrasting them with works expressing an opposing (and she would say more limited) vision.
In Greek literature, Heilbrun finds a “hidden” tradition of androgyny embodied in such plays as Antigone (c. 441 b.c.) by Sophocles and Medea (431 b.c.) by Euripides. She argues that in the former, for example, by reversing the expected gender roles played by Antigone and Haemon, Sophocles makes his female protagonist play the “male” part: a woman acts to avenge her brother’s death. Haemon, Antigone’s lover, sacrifices himself for his beloved in proper “female” fashion. To further underscore the theme, Heilbrun adds that Sophocles provides Ismene, Antigone’s sister, as an ineffectual woman following a prescribed gender role, and the blind prophet Teiresias, who is both male and female, as the true visionary.
Although the Judeo-Christian tradition and that of Islam emphasized patriarchy almost exclusively, feminine, civilizing principles reenter in the medieval period, according to Heilbrun, with the rise of romance and the growth of popular adoration of the Virgin Mary. By the Renaissance, and particularly in Shakespeare’s women, Heilbrun argues that the androgynous impulse emerged in full flower. Citing several examples—Hamlet’s sacrificing of Ophelia as an example of his killing his “feminine” self in Hamlet (1603); the recognition of the daughter as her father’s true inheritor in King Lear (1608) and the late romances; the vitality and moral force of the comic heroines disguised as men, such as Rosalind in As You Like It (1623)—she argues convincingly for Shakespeare’s androgynous vision.
In part 2 of the work, “The Woman as Hero,” Heilbrun turns to fiction to trace the continuation of the androgynous impulse in literature written in English from the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century. Beginning with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-1748), which she calls the first androgynous novel, Heilbrun goes on to discuss others, including William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). Each contains an example of the...
(The entire section is 1087 words.)