Women in Modern Literature
Women in Modern Literature
Gender issues have been a topic in written literature since ancient times, when Greek poets such as Sappho and Homer wrote of female sexuality, marriage, and emotional bonds between women and their families, and philosophers questioned, and usually denigrated, the role of women in society. Christianity brought to literature the dichotomous virgin-whore—or "good girlbad girl"—archetype, modeled after the seemingly contradictory figures of the Virgin Mary and the Biblical prostitute Mary Magdalene, which has survived to the present day in literature and popular culture. In the Victorian period female literary paradigms began to shift as more women openly published their writings and women's emancipation became a major societal issue. At one end of the spectrum was the Victorian "Angel of the House," which placed women in the position of helpmate, homemaker, and superior social conscience, but which ultimately limited women's options to the realm of home and occasional volunteer work. At the other end was the newly emerging liberated woman who candidly demanded her right to education, suffrage, and the single life but who was generally treated as an outcast by respectable society and still could not vote, inherit property, or easily cultivate a career. Both figures appeared in and were scrutinized by the literature of the time. In the early twentieth century, as the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud became widely read, literature by and about women took on an interiorized dimension. Many later feminist thinkers considered Freud's ideas about women misogynistic and claimed that they said more about Freud's own insecurities and neuroses than about the actual state of women's psyches, but it cannot be denied that concepts such as castration anxiety, penis envy, and Oedipal and Electra complexes strongly influenced Western notions about women, particularly in literature, throughout the twentieth century. Literature by and about women in Latin American, Caribbean, Asian, and African countries has tended to focus on many of the same issues, in addition to more fundamental questions of human rights and the effects of colonization and slavery on women. In the modern feminist era—particularly after women earned the right to vote in many Western countries and gained greater access to education and the workplace—literature has concentrated increasingly on women's changing roles and continued obstacles to equality.
The Old Maid (novel) 1935
La serpiente de oro (novel) 1935
The Edible Woman (novel) 1969
The Women (drama) 1936
Jane Eyre (novel) 1847
"The Rabbi's Daughter" (short story) 1975
My Antonia (novel) 1918
Wine in the Wilderness (drama) 1969
Wedding Band (drama) 1972
The Awakening (novella) 1899
A Man's World (drama) 1909
Mary the Third (drama) 1925
When Ladies Meet (drama) 1932
Middlemarch (novel) 1871-72
Madame Bovary (novel) 1857
J. E. Franklin
Black Girl (drama) 1971
Miss Lulu Bett (drama) 1920
Ruth (novel) 1853
Wives and Daughters (novel) 1864-66...
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Ashley H. Thorndike
SOURCE: "Woman," in Literature in a Changing Age, The Macmillan Company, 1920, pp. 192-22.
[In the following essay, Thorndike examines the portrayal of women in works by both male and female writers from the Victorian period into the modern age.]
During the last century women shared in the profits that arose from the vast progress in education, democracy, industry, and invention. Indeed, they appear to have acquired some excess of profits and to have gained ground relatively to men. The wife in relation to the husband, the sister in comparison with her brother, the spinster in comparison with the bachelor, may still have inferior opportunities and privileges, but their inferiority is far less marked than a century ago. The advance has been by no means uncontested or unheralded. Woman has been the subject of discussion and legislation as never before. Women's education, women's rights, woman suffrage have become current terms representing great social movements. The rights of free association and free speech, which have been used by Englishmen with such important results in social and political change, have been employed even more effectively by Englishwomen. The feminist movement, by which term we may include all efforts for increasing the opportunities and activities of women, has availed itself of every weapon of organization and association, of public...
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SOURCE: "Women in the American Novel," in Women: A Feminist Perspective, edited by Jo Freeman, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1975, pp. 279-92.
[In the following essay, Snow examines the evolution of female characterization in American literature from the embodiment of goodness and purity to that of conniving temptress.]
In 1852 Melville described Lucy Tartan in Pierre:
.. . her cheeks were tinted with the most delicate white and red, the white predominating. Her eyes some god brought down from heaven; her hair was Danae's, spangled with Jove's shower; her teeth were dived for in the Persian Sea.
In 1930 Faulkner described Temple Drake in Sanctuary:
Her face was quite pale, the two spots of rouge like paper discs pasted on her cheek bones, her mouth painted into a savage and perfect bow, also like something both symbolical and cryptic cut carefully from purple paper and pasted there. . . . her eyes blank right and left looking, cool, predatory and discreet.
This change from flower to Venus's flytrap took place neither suddenly nor completely. The earlier image of woman as the hand-wrought creation of the gods permeated our culture to such an extent that remnants and distortions of it may still be found....
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Other National Literatures
Jane S. Jaquette
SOURCE: "Literary Archetypes and Female Role Alternatives: The Woman and the Novel in Latin America," in Female and Male in Latin America: Essays, edited by Ann Pescatello, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973, pp. 3-27.
[In the following essay, Jaquette analyzes images of women in Peruvian literature in an attempt to discover the changing roles of women in Latin American culture.]
It is the intent of this paper to examine literary images of women in Peru (a "prerevolutionary" society in the sense that, in contrast to Castro, the new military elite has not focused on changing female roles as an aspect of its "revolutionary" program) in order to cast new light on sociological perspectives of women in Latin American society. It is assumed, as female studies have assumed in the North American and British context, that there is a vital link between literature and social behavior, that literature both represents existing social relationships and at the same time socializes women into their roles. Thus literature can be a legitimate source of data and a useful generator of hypotheses for empirical research.
In examining Peruvian literature I found that there was a tendency among Peruvian writers to avoid creating "real" female characters. In the case of Ciro Algería and the social protest novelist in general, this was due to the use of females as...
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Ford Madox Ford
SOURCE: "The Woman of the Novelists," in The Critical Attitude, Duckworth & Co., 1911, 190 p.
[In the following essay, Ford presents, in the form of a letter, an analysis of the "Woman of the Novelists, " which he defines as the amalgam of women as portrayed in literature, finding that presentations of female characters are generally harmful to women in society and personal life.]
My dear mesdames, X, Y, and Z.
We should like you to observe that we are writing to you not on the women, but on the Woman of the novelists. The distinction is very deep, very serious. If we were writing on female characters—on the women of the novelists—we should expect to provide a series of notes on the female characters of our predecessors or our rivals. We should say that Amelia (Fielding's Amelia) was too yielding, and we should look up Amelia and read passages going to prove our contention. Or we should say we envied Tom Jones—and again give our reasons for that envy. We should say that Amelia Osborne (Thackeray's Amelia) was a bore. And we should bore you with passages about Amelia. We should flash upon you Clarissa and Pamela; Portia and the patient Grisel; Di Vernon and Lady Humphrey's Daughter (perhaps that is not the right title); Rose (from Evan Harrington)—we adore Rose and very nearly believe in her—and Mr Haggard's "She." We should...
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SOURCE: "All the Wild Witches: The Women in Yeats's Poems," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 565-82.
[In the following essay, Hynes discusses the women in William Butler Yeats's poetry in light of Yeats's idea of the poetic muse as a sexual, maternally creative, and pantheistic force.]
"We poets would die of loneliness but for women, and we choose our men friends that we may have somebody to talk about women with." This is Yeats in a letter written near the end of his life, playing a characteristic lifelong role—the poet writing to a woman about men, women, and love. The generalization that he makes is not, of course, as universal as it sounds; but certainly it is true of Yeats himself: he belongs in the category of lovers of women, those men for whom the company of women is more important than the company of men. Everything that we know about his life, all the copious biographical records that he left, gives the same impression of a life defined and supported by relationships with women, from Madame Blavatsky and Maud Gonne at the beginning to Dorothy Wellesley and Margot Ruddock at the end. The published letters make this point very clearly: more than half were written to seven women. And of all his correspondence the most moving letters are those addressed during his last years to an old woman who had been his mistress forty years...
(The entire section is 11504 words.)
Jeanne-Marie A. Miller
SOURCE: "Images of Black Women in Plays By Black Playwrights," in CLA Journal Vol. XX, No. 4, June, 1977, pp. 494-507.
[In the following essay, Miller examines the attempts of African American playwrights after the 1950s to bring black female characters to the forefront in American drama.]
In 1933, in an essay entitled "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors," the brilliant scholar-critic Sterling A. Brown wrote that Blacks had met with as great injustice in the literature of America as they had in the life of their country. In American literature, then, including the drama, Blacks had been depicted most often as negative stereotypes: the contented slave, the wretched freeman, the comic Negro, the brute Negro, the tragic mulatto, the local color Negro, and the exotic primitive.1Black female characters have been scarce in only one of these categories—the brute Negro. They have been most plentiful as the faithful servant. In American drama, where, seemingly, many more roles have been written for men than women, Black or white, it is the Black female character who has faced double discrimination—that of sex and race.
As early as the nineteenth century Black women have been written about by playwrights of their own race. Melinda, in William Wells Brown's The Escape, for example, is a mulatto who is not...
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Showalter, Elaine, ed. Women's Liberation and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971, 338 p. Contains selections of fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction that have dealt with the issue of women's rights and suggests topics for classroom discussion and research writing.
Ackley, Katherine Anne, ed. Misogyny in Literature: An Essay Collection. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992, 393 p.
Examines misogyny in literature through history and across various genres, including poetry, science fiction, and horror.
Bell, Roseann P., Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy Sheftall, eds. Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1979, 422 p.
Essay collection focusing on writings by and about black women; includes selections from poetry and fiction.
Boos, Florence, and Lynn Miller, eds. Bibliography of Women and Literature. 2 vols. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1989, 439 p. and 342 p.
Bibliography of works by and about women from 600 A.D. to 1975.
Bradham, Margaret C. "Barbara Pym's Women." World Literature Today 61, No. 1 (Winter 1987): 31-37.
Argues that Pym's writing deserves greater exposure and that critics who have focused on Pym as a...
(The entire section is 833 words.)