Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction Critical Essays

Annis Pratt


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Noting that a common literary theme is the youthful quest for self and identity, Pratt shows how women writers tend to portray this quest. Because for women the urge for self-development includes the opposite pressure to narrow oneself down into the roles and behaviors considered appropriate for womanhood, women writers tend to handle this theme differently than do men writers.

The desire for self-fulfillment, Pratt says, is often embodied in a love of nature, which she identifies with the archetype of the “green world.” The quest often includes the terrible choice between real self-fulfillment, on the one hand, and human love and relationship, on the other. For women, this is presented as an “either/or” situation.

One example from a popular novel of the nineteenth century is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868, 1869), in which Jo, the one of the four daughters who has the most difficulty growing up, struggles mightily against the proscriptions of women’s lives. She wants to follow her own interests, have adventures, and look as she wishes, but she is counseled to turn up her hair, wear long gowns, and act like a young lady.

Once women are enclosed in the domestic bonds of patriarchal marriage, other themes come to the fore. Pratt identifies two categories of fiction in this section: novels of marriage and novels of social protest. An example of the first is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), in which the concept of a practical and financially secure marriage as woman’s best choice is satirized. Themes prevalent in this first type include the struggle with marriage as social enclosure which narrows women’s boundaries, women’s complicity in the choice for marriage and enclosure, the insanity that is portrayed as the result of rebellion against the strictures of marriage, and fantasies about equal marriages. The novel of social protest involves its author in a search for the reasons behind society’s problems. In this case, she looks beyond the...

(The entire section is 830 words.)