Toward a Recognition of Androgyny Analysis

Carolyn Gold

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Written during the height of the women’s movement, at a time when women were questioning society’s rigid definitions of what it meant to be a woman or man, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny suggests that the salvation of the human race depends upon the ability to transcend gender stereotyping and allow individuals a full range of human behaviors. This ideal state of understanding is “androgyny,” a term derived from the Greek andro (“male”) and gyn (“female”), meaning “a condition under which the characteristics of the sexes, and the human impulses expressed by men and women, are not rigidly assigned.” Turning to literature for examples of this androgynous vision, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, then professor of English literature at Columbia University, finds them in writers as diverse as Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf in this ambitious reexamination of some of the major texts of Western literature.

The book is divided into three separate but interrelated sections. The first traces “The Hidden River of Androgyny” embodied in Greek mythology and literature and continuing through the Renaissance, finding its fullest expression in Shakespeare’s complex heroines. Proceeding chronologically and shifting, for the most part, to fiction, “The Woman as Hero” section is the longest. This section examines mostly female characters from some of the most important novels written in...

(The entire section is 489 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Toward a Recognition of Androgyny elicited strong responses from its supporters and detractors. The former, many of them women, found it liberating: For the first time, someone had articulated what (among other things) made some writers great and others not so great. The giants, women and men, possessed a certain vision that enabled them to see beyond rigid gender boundaries. The book’s detractors, many of them men, wanted a more precise definition of androgyny and failed to recognize the difference between the androgynous writer and the feminist, a distinction that Heilbrun makes a few times in the text. Some critics questioned individual interpretations.

The book’s position in the history of literary criticism, and feminist literary criticism in particular, is secure. Only three years after the publication of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), in which Millett exposed the misogyny in authors such as Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, Heilbrun’s book contributed a different perspective. By examining the idea of androgyny, a notion that had been introduced into literary criticism by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and had been discussed by Virginia Woolf, Heilbrun not only reread the literature of the past but also offered a blueprint for writers of the future.

In later works, including Reinventing Womanhood (1978), Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), and Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women (1990), Carolyn Heilbrun has continued to examine women’s lives, in fiction and in fact, in order to make sense of them.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Diamond, Arlyn, and Lee Edwards, eds. The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977. An early collection of excellent feminist essays on writers including Shakespeare, Richardson, Charlotte Brontë, and Virginia Woolf.

Edwards, Lee R. Psyche as Hero: Female Heroism and Fictional Form. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984. A study of the fulfillment or frustration of heroic possibilities in a variety of English and American novels from the mid-eighteenth century to the present. Edwards examines many of the same novels that Heilbrun does.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. A bold interpretation of the major women writers of the nineteenth century that traces in their works a distinctly female literary tradition.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G., and Margaret R. Higonnet, eds. The Representation of Women in Fiction. Series: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1981. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Six important essays from the English Institute’s first session on feminist criticism. Relevant are Jane Marcus on Virginia Woolf and Mary Poovey on Jane Austen. Heilbrun contributes a brief introduction.

Springer, Marlene, ed. What Manner of Woman: Essays on English and American Life and Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1977. A superb collection of essays on women in literature from the medieval period to the present which deals with many of the authors in Heilbrun’s study. Includes an essay by Heilbrun on marriage in English literature from 1873 to 1941.