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As others have mentioned, the time period is a major factor when considering this question. For example, Kate Chopin who wrote during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, depicted her female characters as trapped by rigid social constraints. Louise Mallared, the protagonist of her popular story "The Story of an Hour, feels utterly trapped by her marriage and gains a sense of ultimate freedom upon learning that her husband is dead. Other works by Chopin similarly represent female characters.
It depends upon the author. In Michael Cunningham's book The Hours, women's lives are the subject of the book. It is the a story of three women's lives. It focuses on the life of Virginia Wolf and her character Mrs. Dalloway. It also focuses on a woman inthe 1950's and a woman in 2001. A movie was made of the book, with Meryl Streep in it.
Toni Morrison shows very strong women characters sometimes and characters, such as in The Bluest Eye, who are beaten down by abusive males but come into their own over time.
There are novels where the women characters are in abusive relationships, but they do something positive to get out, so in that case, the author is making a positive statement about women.
I wrote a book review in Heliotrope magazine, reviewing the Japanese author Natsuo Kirino's book,entitled Out. It is an excellent novel. It's a mystery where the women are very strong. (I won't give the plot away but it is an excellent novel and won the highest crime fiction award in Japan.) It shows modern day Japan.
Anyways, I think you have brought up a good point. I always look for books where the women are characterised as being strong, adventurous and independent.
That depends entirely on the literary movement in which it is being represented. In Medieval literature we have women represented as de damisels in distress, waiting eagerly for some form of rescue, certainly co-dependant on the immediate circle of males around them, and weakened in character.
As you move towards the Renaissance, the end of it denotes women in specific roles as ale wives, prostitutes, queens, evil queens...yet it is their negative traits such as prudeness, the lackthereof, their mannerisms, their tendencies to talk a lot, and the overall female feebleness in the eye of society was more specifically pointed, hence the Canterbury Tales, Decameron, etc.
Baroque literature, especifically German baroque presents women as objects of many desires: of hatred, of lust, of martyrdom, of serenity, of sexuality, and of beauty in some forms. It is more so obvious in German baroque than others that women begin to take an active form in literature and are weighed nearly equally. These are times when women studies had begun to be considered in society, and perhaps that gave some curiosity to women in general.
Romanticism saw the advent of women as people with rights, emotions, needs, and temperament. The English play of the late 18th and early 19th centuries denotes the development of female characters which speak for themselves and are more dependent on what the author wants to depict them as, not so much as co-dependent on the social expectations of their character (in many cases).
Post-Modern and modern literature, of course, presents women slowly detaching themselves from specific roles and we see more and more that, even though non-fiction helps women define themselves, fiction still has a slight tendency to present women in the "dependent upon" role of emotions.
It has certainly changed through times.
I'll say that presentation of women in a literary work depends largely on the author's gender and perspective as well as the literary period. Not only the time period or era can define the presentations.
If an author's approach is a sort of controversial to the age, that means s/he tends to break the norms and create a different type of character according to the plot's demands. For example, in Austen's novel, women are protagonists and depicted as very brave and courageous characters at least in the social context of Austen's age. Besides, the female authors, especially in modern time, focus on feminist aspects more than a male author. Maximum male authors, at the end, prove to be a little biased to the male dominating attitudes. Even Eliot, the most famous English Modern poet, holds on such a masculine view which negates feminine goodness to many extents. Best example would be of this statement of mine a line from his 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'- "women come and go, talking about Michelangelo" meaning that modern women do have nothing to do without gossiping and time-wasting. It is easily presumable that, as he is a man himself, so, for Eliot, it's very easy to give a quick and harsh comment about women. But, are women only good gossipy, brainless belle, terrible tempter as depicted in Eliot, Pope and Milton?
I'll say that, almost no author can ignore the biased standpoint arisen because of their own gender.
It all depends on the time period in which the work was written, the author of the work, and the final publisher in creating it for the public. From Anglo Saxon times to the present, women have had major and supporting roles, been the protagonist as well as antagonist, and have supplied various supporting characters throughout history. It's really impossible to be precise with so many different works.
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