Women in Literature Analysis

At Issue

Issues of women’s identity in Western literature concern the fictional identity (characterization) of women in literary works versus the “real” identity (literal role) assigned women in the actual historical period of the plot. “Western literature” refers to the works of writers in Europe, Canada, and the United States; these works trace their literary heritage to classical Greek and Roman myths. Western fiction—from Greek and Roman mythmaking until the nineteenth century—was generally written by men. Twentieth century feminist scholarship seeks understanding of the startling gaps between man’s depiction of woman in his fiction and the place he assigns her in society.

One may mark the beginning of the scholarship of gender and identity with Virginia Woolf’s feminist work, A Room of One’s Own (1929). Consideration of gender and identity in Western literature requires a review of Woolf’s work, an analysis of Western gender issues as rooted in the myth of Eden, and a focus on Western man’s depiction of woman in literature versus the role he assigns to her in society.

A Room of One’s Own consists of two lectures presented to young women who wanted to write fiction. For those women, Woolf delineates the place man assigned to woman in society: the home, the nursery, the sickroom, and the conjugal bed. She references the places man forbade woman to go: men’s schools, about the countryside alone, to a room of her own, to solitude. Early in the work, she focuses on professors and beadles as the brute guards of academe and of church. Woolf cites examples of how libraries were determined to deny women access. She illustrates by focusing on gender and identity in academic literature. Citing entries in a history of England, she makes a convincing argument that women were ignored, beaten, starved, and generally treated like chattel throughout history. Woolf then points out that had women existed only in fiction written by men, readers would think they were persons of utmost importance, “heroic and mean; splendid and sordid . . . as great as a man.” Woolf adds: “This is woman in fiction.” In fact, she points out, if a girl refused to marry the man her parents chose for her, she was “locked up, beaten, and flung about the room.”

Woolf marvels that, although woman permeates pages of fiction and poetry, she is “all but absent from history.” Scholarly concentration on this paradox came to be called “gender studies” after the 1976...

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Three Women in Western Literature

Woman as temptress is one stereotypical view that fills literature. In John Milton’s rewriting of Edenic myth in his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), Eve is a narcissistic being (devoted to self-pleasure). Milton places blame for Adam’s fall on Adam, who should not, the poem says, have allowed the woman out of his sight. Such a view demeans woman, labeling her as incapable of making moral choices without a man to control her decisions. American feminist critic Sandra M. Gilbert argues that Milton’s view of Eden so permeates Western thought that it affected even Woolf, making her guilt-ridden for being woman.

A second stereotypical view of woman that fills literature also comes from the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a virgin: pure, innocent, angelic. In literature, man places the well-behaved virgin on a pedestal. He looks to her for encouragement, for applause, for comfort, for his redemption. She appears, for example, in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Such heroines enable men to become heroes; the heroine’s most overt action as a character is fainting in the face of even minimal discomfort.

Another version of the pure, innocent, angelic female character is found in Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer. She appears in Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). In this play, Nora is like a doll in size; her father called her his doll; her husband, Torwald, wishes her to be a doll and treats her as if she were one, as if she had no mind or will of her own. Nora is not a doll; she is a woman with a secret debt made to fund a trip which, unknown to Torwald, was necessary to save his life and for which she could not beguile him to borrow money. Although she behaved as his doll, she was, in fact, sacrificing herself to his image of her, as she had sacrificed herself in girlhood to her father’s image of her. All the while, she knew exactly what she was doing, but it made her happy to be what they wished of her. She felt pride in herself because she had been able, secretly, to get the money and had been able to make payments on it without Torwald’s ever having to know she had gone to great lengths to save his life while pretending so well to be a doll. In the end, she leaves Torwald and her children to discover herself. This...

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United States Literature

Much has been written about colonial America as the new Eden, and about American women as the new Eve. The history of gender and identity in U.S. literature takes a different twist than in that of Europe. The European stereotype of temptress applied to women characters in American fiction, as did the great mother. The virgin, however, became the American princess. Bright, young, full of promise, desirable and with money, the princess is a staple of American fiction.

The earliest writings of colonial America are not, however, fiction but political documents, letters, journals, diaries, and some poetry. Julia Kristeva, a French feminist critic, argues that America in the twentieth century still had no national literature of its own, but only copies of that of Europe. In gender identity, however, fiction in the United States, from its post-Revolutionary War beginning onward, reveals a curious difference from European fiction.

From girlhood onward, beginning in colonial days, American women were given freedoms unheard of in Europe. They farmed, fenced, milked, scrubbed, churned, and built barns. Abigail Adams, for example, ran the family farm while her husband was away on government business, and she did it so well that Adams received numerous letters from friends praising her work. Women also gave birth, reared children, made soap, became wartime spies, quilted by candlelight, went to parties, planned picnics, and wrote letters on serious subjects to mates, government leaders, and women friends. American women wrote journals, diaries, and poems, but few of these works were published in their lifetimes.

The openness and freedom of American women’s lifestyle caused European visitors to comment on them as a new creation, constantly exposed to the world, yet sweet, guileless, and energetic. These visitors found it odd that such freedom in national manners resulted in such purity in national morals. They marveled that American girls were taught to think for themselves and that parents, rather than trying to keep them from confronting the world, taught them to survey it firmly and...

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Suggested Readings

Earnest, Ernest. The American Eve in Fact and Fiction, 1775-1914. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1974. A well-documented look at American women in society and in fiction.

Foster, Shirley. Victorian Women’s Fiction: Marriage, Freedom, and the Individual. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. Examines women’s expression of marriage in their fiction.

Fryer, Judith. The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. This classic treats the identity of woman in American fiction by men, and in the last chapter, by women writers.

Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986. An excellent review of woman as treated by these chief male writers of American fiction.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G., and Margaret R. Higonnet, eds. The Representation of Women in Fiction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. The introduction presents a brief, clear statement of the purpose and direction of feminist criticism relative to the representation of woman in literature.

Reische, Diana, ed. Women and Society. New York: Wilson, 1972. Excellent source for starting research in gender identity.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Reprint. New York: Harcourt, 1981. The book that initiated the gender and identity issue.