At Issue (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Issues of women’s identity in Western literature concern the fictional identity (characterization) of women in literary works versus the “real” identity (literal role) assigned women in the actual historical period of the plot. “Western literature” refers to the works of writers in Europe, Canada, and the United States; these works trace their literary heritage to classical Greek and Roman myths. Western fiction—from Greek and Roman mythmaking until the nineteenth century—was generally written by men. Twentieth century feminist scholarship seeks understanding of the startling gaps between man’s depiction of woman in his fiction and the place he assigns her in society.
One may mark the beginning of the scholarship of gender and identity with Virginia Woolf’s feminist work, A Room of One’s Own (1929). Consideration of gender and identity in Western literature requires a review of Woolf’s work, an analysis of Western gender issues as rooted in the myth of Eden, and a focus on Western man’s depiction of woman in literature versus the role he assigns to her in society.
A Room of One’s Own consists of two lectures presented to young women who wanted to write fiction. For those women, Woolf delineates the place man assigned to woman in society: the home, the nursery, the sickroom, and the conjugal bed. She references the places man forbade woman to go: men’s schools, about the countryside alone, to a room...
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Three Women in Western Literature (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Woman as temptress is one stereotypical view that fills literature. In John Milton’s rewriting of Edenic myth in his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), Eve is a narcissistic being (devoted to self-pleasure). Milton places blame for Adam’s fall on Adam, who should not, the poem says, have allowed the woman out of his sight. Such a view demeans woman, labeling her as incapable of making moral choices without a man to control her decisions. American feminist critic Sandra M. Gilbert argues that Milton’s view of Eden so permeates Western thought that it affected even Woolf, making her guilt-ridden for being woman.
A second stereotypical view of woman that fills literature also comes from the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a virgin: pure, innocent, angelic. In literature, man places the well-behaved virgin on a pedestal. He looks to her for encouragement, for applause, for comfort, for his redemption. She appears, for example, in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Such heroines enable men to become heroes; the heroine’s most overt action as a character is fainting in the face of even minimal discomfort.
Another version of the pure, innocent, angelic female character is found in Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer. She appears in Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). In this play, Nora is like a doll in size; her father called her his doll; her husband, Torwald, wishes her to be a doll and...
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United States Literature (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Much has been written about colonial America as the new Eden, and about American women as the new Eve. The history of gender and identity in U.S. literature takes a different twist than in that of Europe. The European stereotype of temptress applied to women characters in American fiction, as did the great mother. The virgin, however, became the American princess. Bright, young, full of promise, desirable and with money, the princess is a staple of American fiction.
The earliest writings of colonial America are not, however, fiction but political documents, letters, journals, diaries, and some poetry. Julia Kristeva, a French feminist critic, argues that America in the twentieth century still had no national literature of its own, but only copies of that of Europe. In gender identity, however, fiction in the United States, from its post-Revolutionary War beginning onward, reveals a curious difference from European fiction.
From girlhood onward, beginning in colonial days, American women were given freedoms unheard of in Europe. They farmed, fenced, milked, scrubbed, churned, and built barns. Abigail Adams, for example, ran the family farm while her husband was away on government business, and she did it so well that Adams received numerous letters from friends praising her work. Women also gave birth, reared children, made soap, became wartime spies, quilted by candlelight, went to parties, planned picnics, and wrote letters on serious...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Earnest, Ernest. The American Eve in Fact and Fiction, 1775-1914. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1974. A well-documented look at American women in society and in fiction.
Foster, Shirley. Victorian Women’s Fiction: Marriage, Freedom, and the Individual. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. Examines women’s expression of marriage in their fiction.
Fryer, Judith. The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. This classic treats the identity of woman in American fiction by men, and in the last chapter, by women writers.
Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986. An excellent review of woman as treated by these chief male writers of American fiction.
Heilbrun, Carolyn G., and Margaret R. Higonnet, eds. The Representation of Women in Fiction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. The introduction presents a brief, clear statement of the purpose and direction of feminist criticism relative to the representation of woman in literature.
Reische, Diana, ed. Women and Society. New York: Wilson, 1972. Excellent source for...
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