How do authors like Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and Jhumpa Lahiri participate in a literary tradition which has consistently disfranchised and misrepresented women? Or how have they added to...

How do authors like Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and Jhumpa Lahiri participate in a literary tradition which has consistently disfranchised and misrepresented women? Or how have they added to this very disfranchisement? How has the misrepresentation brought about the total displacement of women artists from tradition to the extent that their works depart radically in form and content from those of their male counterparts?

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dashing-danny-dillinger eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is certainly true that even though the three American writers you have mentioned—Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and Jhumpa Lahiri— all wrote during disparate eras, they each participated in a literary tradition that has disenfranchised or else undervalued female writers until fairly recently. However, even though they participated in this restrictive literary tradition, this does not necessarily mean that they were complicit in their marginalized status, or that they added to this misrepresentation of women. Indeed, I argue that they all actually broke ground for women writers in their own ways.

Anne Bradstreet was the first woman writer of note in the early history of American literature. Her poem “The Author to Her Book” may initially be read as a woman unhappy with her artistic ability. Indeed, Bradstreet laments a poem that she wishes she never published:

“In critic's hands beware thou dost not come,

And take thy way where yet thou art not known;

If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;

And for thy mother, she alas is poor,

Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.” (107)

While this could be perceived by a patriarchal reader to at first be an admittance of her own shortcomings as a female author, it must be noted that she is more upset that the piece was not perfected before it was published. Additionally, the sheer fact that she was a woman publishing literature in 17th century America is remarkably subversive of phallocentric discourse.

Similarly, Emily Dickinson may initially appear to contribute to the marginalized status of women writers through her odd and reclusive behavior, but the fact that she has become such an important voice in early American poetry demonstrates that she too is subversive. In “The Soul selects her own Society,” Dickinson interestingly uses a female voice. This female voice is strong and assertive, the opposite of restrictive gender scripts at the time.

Finally, Jhumpa Lahiri, a modern author addressing the issues that face modern women, may, at first glance, appear to contribute to narrow gender scripts. Her short story “Sexy” from Interpreter of Maladies begins with an overly broad statement that oversimplifies the needs and fears of married women:

“It was a wife’s worst nightmare. After nine years of marriage, Laxmi told Miranda, her cousin’s husband had fallen in love with another woman” (83).

This initially appears to contribute to a narrow societal perspective of women and what women value. However, again, by addressing the needs of women from a distinctly female perspective, Lahiri is not contributing to the pejoration of women writers, but instead challenging patriarchal discourse through her story. Thus, these three disparate women writers do in fact participate in a phallocentric literary tradition, but, I contend that they do not contribute to the marginalized status of women writers, and actually empower women writers who draw on their inspiration.

As far as women writers engaging with different forms than male writers, I would suggest you examine Hélène Cixous and her seminal essay "The Laugh of the Medusa," as she attributes the difference between male and female writers to women writers (or else writers in touch with their feminine side) being able to write the female form, and this renders their writing inherently different from the restrictive purposes of patriarchal language.

I pulled my textual evidence from:

The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 1, 7th ed.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy” from Interpreter of Maladies