Patriarchy and Matriarchy in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

“Patriarch” means “father.” In a patriarchy, belonging to the society, or legitimacy, comes from fathers through ritual and law. Patriarchy provides ruling power to men. “Matriarch” means “mother.” In a matriarchy, belonging to society, or legitimacy, comes from mothers through childbirth. Matriarchy distributes power throughout a community. Matriarchal systems are more likely to have female and male deities and priests. Monotheism is usually considered patriarchal, although worship of the Goddess, or God the Mother, is found in monotheistic models of matriarchy. Patriarchal gods include Zeus, Apollo, and Jehovah; matriarchal goddesses include Demeter, Aphrodite, Artemis, Isis, Afrekete, and Ishtar.

In the nineteenth century, Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Bachofen theorized that prehistoric societies were matriarchies. He attributes to matriarchy the origins of family, the creation of civilization, the beginnings of social structures, and the start of agriculture. Agriculture, however, led to patriarchy. American ethnologist Lewis H. Morgan described matriarchy within North American indigenous tribes, such as the Iroquois. Morgan influenced the German socialist Friedrich Engels, who theorized that private property, competition, and individualism sprang from patriarchy in Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staats (1884, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1902). In A Room of...

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Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century American Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Early American literature, even of the colonial period, that questions social values typically favors patriarchal individuality rather than a more communal matriarchal society. Postrevolutionary authors such as Benjamin Franklin, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and Charles Brockden Brown sought to redefine patriarchy by shifting the received language and culture of their British “fathers” to a new language and culture supportive of American revolutionary ideology. In creating their new ideal of patriarchy, they suppressed or ignored voices of women, African slaves, and Native Americans, along with oppositional voices among white males. Thomas Jefferson did not think that Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) deserved serious consideration, for example.

The next generation of authors often distrusted their cultural fathers from the colonial and revolutionary periods. James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville were among these writers. These authors were not necessarily sympathetic to women’s movements of their time, but their books address questions raised by the first wave of feminism—associated with abolitionism and suffrage—about women’s roles in society. Literature by this generation of authors challenges patriarchy using various strategies.

Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) juxtaposes two versions of settlement history, one of...

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Twentieth Century American Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The work of Ernest Hemingway, like much twentieth century literature, generally supports patriarchy. The Sun Also Rises (1926), however, contains what a few scholars interpret as criticism of patriarchal failings. William Faulkner reveals conflicts between an abusive Old South patriarchy and a New South patriarchy, which has its own faults, in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and the Snopes trilogy: The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1960). John Steinbeck, on the other hand, writes favorably of matriarchy in his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Steinbeck, who was familiar with the work of Briffault, uses Ma Joad, the squatter’s circle, and Jim Casy to present social ideals consistent with Briffault’s ideas about matriarchy.

The 1950’s Beat writers criticized society and patriarchy, but do not often offer a matriarchal alternative. In their writings phallic symbols, from industrial smokestacks to nuclear missiles, represent patriarchal evil and greed. Among those who overtly opposed patriarchy was gay poet Allen Ginsberg. Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958) criticizes patriarchal values in favor of Eastern philosophy, which he argued is characterized by matriarchal values. Active social criticism in literature, including issues of patriarchy and matriarchy, coincided with renewed social activism in the 1960’s.

With late twentieth century feminism came new...

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Identity Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

According to some scholars, competing patriarchal and matriarchal mythic systems exist in every human culture. Vestiges of matriarchal myths exist in African, Caribbean, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and Western European traditions, among others. Lesbian literature has matriarchy as a major theme, along with criticism of patriarchy. Gay and feminist literatures frequently criticize patriarchy.

Some authors and critics believe that prehistoric, preagricultural cultures were matriarchal. Others reject that idea. At any rate, there is a body of literature that seeks to reclaim a matriarchal past as a way of opposing patriarchy and oppression. Given the havoc wreaked upon various cultures by patriarchy, this literature treats matriarchy as more civilized.

Examples from Native American traditions include Laguna author Leslie Marmon Silko, who uses Spider Woman as a matriarchal spiritual healer for Tayo and his people in Ceremony (1977). Silko’s Almanac of the Dead: A Novel (1991) portrays clashes between patriarchal Europeans and matriarchal Native Americans. The Creek poet Joy Harjo uses matriarchal imagery in poetry published in She Had Some Horses (1983) and The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: Poems (1994).

Among examples from African American writers, Audre Lorde revisits the African myth of Afrekete to identify a black goddess in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches of Audre Lorde (1984), she strongly criticizes patriarchy and favors a return to matriarchy. The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker contrasts patriarchal abusiveness with a matriarchal alternative made possible by a lesbian love affair. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) presents the holy matriarchy of Baby Suggs; social institutions, including a sheriff, try to enforce the patriarchal institution of slavery and destroy Baby Suggs’s world. Sethe’s desperate attempt to prevent this destroys Baby Suggs’s spirit.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bachofen, Johann Jakob. Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of J. J. Bachofen. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Bachofen’s theories influenced literary thinking and criticism about patriarchy and matriarchy.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. 4 vols. New York: Arkana, 1991. Traces patriarchy and matriarchy across cultures. Especially useful for discussions of literature is volume four.

Claridge, Laura, and Elizabeth Langland, eds. Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. Gives an overview of how patriarchy applies to literature and criticism even when not the explicit subject of either.

Jordan, Cynthia S. Second Stories: The Politics of Language, Form, and Gender in Early American Fictions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Analyzes patriarchy and resistance to it in literature from the period after the American Revolution through the mid-1800’s.

Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Describes patriarchy’s role in the subordination of women; includes analyses of literature.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Describes resistance to patriarchy in British women’s literature.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. This large reference work is useful for tracking symbolism and allusions related to matriarchy.