Women Fiction Writers Analysis

Women’s Accomplishments, Contributions, and Influence

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Harriet Beecher Stowe is among the best known of the female novelists in nineteenth century America. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) was her most famous work, she published more than twenty-five novels, essays, and stories, some of them best-sellers, during the nineteenth century. The controversy and protest that surrounded Uncle Tom’s Cabin was related to the book’s subject, not to the fact that Stowe was a woman. A protest against the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal to assist a slave’s escape or to provide sanctuary, the novel quickly became popular in England, where more than a million copies were sold. Stowe believed and practiced the doctrine that, if women lived exemplary Christian lives and practiced benevolence, they could transform American culture as they lived out their traditional roles. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, women from across the world responded to this antislavery novel. Reportedly, a half million women in Europe and the British Isles sent twenty-six folio volumes called “Affectionate and Christian Address” to Stowe.

Several years before the French novelist Émile Zola introduced the “naturalistic” novel, Virginia-born Rebecca Harding Davis wrote a novel of social reform, Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman (1861). Because the book was published anonymously, whether Davis’ gender would have been an issue in gaining acceptance for her brilliant insights into the socioeconomic woes of factory workers in America cannot be known. Several of the leading writers and critics of the day considered the short novel to be a literary landmark.

Louisa May Alcott, the first woman to register when women were given limited suffrage in 1879, endeared herself to thousands of young women for her character Jo March in the classic book Little Women (1869). The novel was immediately successful, establishing Alcott as one of America’s most popular writers. She was active in the feminist movement of the nineteenth century, although one does not have to be concerned with Alcott’s feminism to appreciate the contribution of her work to the field of adolescent and young adult fiction.

It has been commented that by the beginning of the twentieth century, everything was permeated by “the woman question.” The fight to gain certain rights associated with the women’s movement was reaching a peak. In keeping with this current, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s now-classic novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) established Gilman as the leading feminist theorist in the United States during her lifetime. The Yellow Wallpaper, which chronicles the mental deterioration and confinement of a young married woman as the result of her oppressive environment, has been called the bible of the women’s movement and has been translated into seven languages. This story established her reputation in the United States as the leading feminist theorist of her day. Her novel Herland (1915) offers another influential statement about the cause of women. In this utopian work, three men discover a race of women who have lived without men for two millennia.

Novelist Willa Cather declared that The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), by her friend Sarah Orne Jewett, belonged among the “enduring novels” in American literature. Two leading poets of the day, John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell, also recognized Jewett’s talent, and Bowdoin College granted her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1901.

At the start of the twentieth century, the rapid development of technology saw the beginning of an erosion of traditional ways of life. Typical of that era were female writers such as Ellen Glasgow, whose novels explored Southern society. Once her first work was published, others followed in quick succession, and, in 1942, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, securing her literary reputation. Another Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer of this era was Willa Cather. Cather felt uprooted when she moved with her family from her native, genteel Virginia to the wilderness of Nebraska. Finding immigrant settlers from Sweden,...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Undoubtedly fiction written by women has made considerable impact on women in general as well as on the examination of specific women’s issues, such as legal rights and the entry of women into previously restricted careers. Much of that impact, however, has been assumed or perceived rather than specifically documented. Likewise, some women’s self-esteem must have been boosted when writers such as Louisa May Alcott, a leading nineteenth century feminist, succeeded in breaking barriers to previously male-dominated territory. Also, women could take pride in seeing the majority of Pulitzer Prizes go to female writers during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Many female writers stand out for their contributions to the cause of other women, as well as to the larger cause of social reform.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Carson McCullers. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of essays that analyze McCullers’ fiction and put into perspective the controversial nature of her work, as well as the strengths that helped to establish her reputation as a writer.

Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. Discusses reasons for the emergence of a large body of feminist literature during the 1960’s and 1970’s and argues against the possibility of a true feminist aesthetic.

Jones, Anne Goodwyn. Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. Explores historical insights concerning the concept of Southern womanhood and answers questions about the relationship between language, literature, and Southern women.

McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1991. This revision of McDowell’s treatment of Edith Wharton reflects a new wave of Wharton scholarship and expresses contemporary understandings of her life and work.

Monteith, Moira. Women’s Writing: A Challenge to Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Especially enlightening in its discussion of how Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather used their writing to articulate their views about conventions that condemned female roles deviating from conventional ones.

Papashvily, Helen Waite. All the Happy Endings. New York: Harper, 1956. Although dated, this assessment of how the American domestic novel provided thousands of women with a “Declaration of Rights” and is relevant to an understanding of the nineteenth century women’s movement.