Communities of Women Analysis
by Nina Auerbach

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Communities of Women Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The introduction to Communities of Women examines essential differences between communities of men and communities of women. Auerbach uses examples of women in classical literature to show the traditional vulnerability of sisterhood to the male hero and to reveal the mutilation, both social and physical, which is associated with isolated groups of women. Yet, these marginalized groups also possess power. The Muses’ control of immortality, for example, attests women’s exclusion from, yet centrality to, civilization.

Auerbach argues, then, that the power of communities of women is not obvious because the classical image of mutilation associated with women who exist without men persists throughout history. Male and female communities differ in terms of authority, which is granted to male communities outwardly by the realities of the world or inwardly by the nature of man’s own power. Female communities, on the other hand, must create their own authority; their goal is partially to gain a sense of self. Both male and female communities are united by a code, but the male code is overtly articulated and inspirational, while the code within the groups of women is private and subversive.

Auerbach argues that the controversy aroused by the idea of strong communities of women is proof of the importance of that idea and traces contemporary ideas about women’s groups to nineteenth century perceptions of sisterhood in England and America. In England, attitudes toward groups of women were situated in traditional gender role stereotypes; they assumed that such communities were based on women’s shared sense of suffering or saw them as a solution for the problem of increasing numbers of single women that occurred toward the end of the century. The idea of powerful communities of women, reinforced by the strong Victorian feminist movement toward the end of the century, became a source of fear, driving some women to isolate themselves in order to claim power or to attempt to gain validity for groups of women through professionalization.

In America, women’s communities posed less of a threat but were still seen as unnatural and undesirable. Consequently, these differing attitudes in England and America led to different results in the formation and perception of women’s groups. In England, the thrust was practical and resulted in such specifically historical events as the founding of Queens College, which would train women professionally. In America, the thrust was spiritual and transhistorical, giving rise to a powerful sense of community which, however, was never translated into action. In Communities of Women, Auerbach seeks to discover why and how women form communities by analyzing pairs of seemingly dissimilar texts. Auerbach argues that these disparities can be accounted for by the lack of both a shared cultural sense of womanhood and a shared sense of an audience.

Both Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women show women moving from the protection of the mother to the protection of the father. Both families are matriarchies in which it is the business of the mother to find husbands for the daughters, and both novels are less about being girls than about women finding a place in an adult world. The novels differ, however, in their sense of completeness with respect to sisterhood. In Pride and Prejudice, domesticity and sisterhood assert themselves only through the presence of men. The value of the home rests in leaving it; this situation reflects the economic and legal invisibility of women in a household without a male heir. In Little Women, the household world is visible and complete in and of itself; the women reach out to include men in their circle. In both communities, however, women are educated only to wait; they cannot enter history because of their gender.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and Charlotte Brontë’s Villette represent an advance in the importance of women’s communities as both novels...

(The entire section is 1,065 words.)