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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...

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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 publication of French critic Michel Foucault’s first volume in his three-volume history of sexuality. This work distinguishes between sex and gender, the latter of which Foucault identifies as the process of socialization and experience through which people learn to play the role of male or female. Foucault, who was homosexual, was a pioneer in the investigation of the assignment of gender roles. Sex is biology; gender is culture.

Jacques Derrida, the French deconstructionist critic, argues that every work of Western literature has roots in Edenic myth. Certainly, gender and identity in Western literature depend upon a person’s interpretation of the myths of Eden. Edenic myth concludes with God’s casting Adam and Eve from Eden, for they had sinned. Original sin is open to interpretation: Eve first bit the forbidden fruit, then gave it to Adam, who ate it. God came, questioned Adam, questioned Eve, and parceled out punishment: The serpent lost its identity forever; the woman was made subject to her husband and afflicted with pain in childbirth; and the man’s punishment fell on the entire earth—God said all nature would war against all people until time ended, and all people would be born to die.

Eden began as Eastern myth, but through Israelite Christianization of the Greek world and the consequent spread of Christianity to the West, the Eden myth has become the crucial text of Western culture, nowhere more than in relation to the gender-specific “place” of people in society and in literature.

The Eden myth is extremely old. Among the earliest Hebrew writings, it had long existed in the oral tradition before being written down. When it was finally written down, it was not canonized for generations. Until 1452, the story was not set in type; rather, it was hand written by scribes who copied from a previous copy. Once printing became possible, the Genesis account of Eden began being translated into all the languages of earth. The myth has been interpreted and reinterpreted by Jews, Gentiles, Catholics, Puritans, Baptists, and all denominations since their first reading of it. Few interpreters agree exactly about the full meaning of the very short and simple biblical passage.

Western society, however, has long agreed generally about the story. “Indisputably correct” interpretation of Edenic myth has determined the requirements for proper masculine and feminine roles. From the beginning of Western culture, man has controlled church and state; hence, it has been man’s interpretation of Edenic myth that has determined societal roles. Discussion of gender and identity in Western literature must begin with a consideration of that myth. Through scholarship, women seek to retrieve their past and to establish themselves as having been contributing members of Western culture, not as appendages of man, but as persons in their own right. Historically, man has made woman such a person in his fiction, but not in his society.

The prevailing view on gender in Western society is the biblical view of Eden. In the biblical account, Adam was in God’s image, and was, in a sense, partner with God in creation, for whereas God created, Adam named. The act of naming was comparable to creating. Then came Eve. Since Eve ate first the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and then tempted Adam to eat it, Eve caused Adam to sin. Thus, Adam lost his partner status with God because of woman. Furthermore, God’s punishment of Eve was to make her an object forever under the authority of a man, always unequal to his position as the one created in God’s likeness. The interpretation that Eve caused Adam to sin gained woman the label of temptress, one who needs masculine control.

Three Women in Western Literature

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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 leaving of her children does not impinge on Nora’s purity, since Torwald has told her that a liar poisons the air others breathe and should never come near children. She believes this, and since she lied to keep him from learning of her debt, she refuses to be around her children. Leaving them, thus, makes her self-sacrifice even more pure. In any case, under the laws of the time, the husband would have gained custody of the children in the event of a separation.

The third stereotypical identity given woman in Western literature is that of mother. A mother may be either the good mother or the wicked stepmother. Motherhood is the crown men willingly give to women, in history and in fiction, and society saves its greatest scorn for bad mothers. As with Edenic myth, individual and societal views of what mother should be like are primordial. The mother image is, as a gender role, a social fabrication, an archetype, and an unconscious expectation people hold of what a mother should be. Expectation controls a person’s perception of adequate or inadequate mothering.

In Western culture, in fiction and in history, motherhood requires marriage, and marriage was a prison for women. Until the mid-twentieth century, for example, at divorce, fathers received custody of the children, and physical punishment of wives was acceptable, even encouraged. Women were expected to obey the husband and to produce and care for many children. Historical records reveal how often women died in childbirth.

In Western fiction and poetry written by men, wifedom and motherhood are idealized. If a wife falls short of the ideal, dire consequences befall her; in society, women who conform to societal views of mothering are depicted as blessed, while those who do not are depicted as evil and worthy of any dire punishments they receive. In historical fact, woman’s plight as wife and mother often held her hostage to an abusive husband, sometimes to victimizing older sons, and certainly to restrictive social mores. Courts of law, the vote, and the door to the church or university were closed to women.

Critic Shirley Foster notes in Victorian Women’s Fiction: Marriage, Freedom, and the Individual (1985) that when women in the Victorian period could finally publish under their own names, society said they should write only of maternal emotions, capturing sensations unknown to man. Such writing, critics contended, would be part of woman’s specialness as an artist. Critics also said that women should not write of professional or intellectual life, since abstract reasoning was difficult, if not impossible, for them.

Foster points out that women novelists were not deceived by such praise of their ability. Women realized that the seeming tribute to their literary skills was really man’s way of limiting the themes that women might treat in fiction. Publishers did not publish women’s novels unless the content conformed to what male critics said women were capable of writing. To publish, it became the practice of many women novelists, Foster notes, to escape their own entrapment in marriage by writing fiction about a relationship of which they only dreamed, thus falsifying their own identity in literature.

United States Literature

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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 calmly. To this end, girls went to school with the boys and learned to read and write. Accordingly, Ernest Earnest notes, European visitors commented that American women were interesting to talk with.

Yet in American fiction, the women of history are not the women of fiction. Sentimental novelists depict women as delicate flowers, as emotional rather than intellectual, as moralizing, as preachy, and as meek. American women in fiction were put in the sick room, in poverty. Their purpose was to redeem men through Christian example and submissive behavior. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne has Hester Pryne doing needlework in The Scarlet Letter (1850) instead of chopping wood, which, in life, a woman like her was more likely to have done. Such oddities are the interest of those concerned with gender and identity issues in literature.

Tracing the historical woman through times of war reveals her to have been still actively, aggressively, and effectively involved in public and private life. She bemoaned war, saying if women had a voice in government, other ways would be found to settle disputes. History records, however, that in America, as in Europe, women continued to be denied legal rights accorded to men: the right to vote, to serve on juries, to enter a case in a court of law, to borrow or sell real property without a husband’s or a father’s consent, to gain custody of children in the event of a divorce. In America as in Europe, men had unquestioned authority over women.

American men fiction writers render a picture of women more compatible with reality than do their European counterparts. William Faulkner, it may be argued, depicts woman as she was in his South. It is not a pretty picture he paints, and as a result, he is declared a misogynist by many critics. Actually, however, he merely mirrors the plight of poverty-stricken people. Faulkner’s middle- to upper-class women characters conform to societal reality of the period as well. Of all his characters, it is the women—black and white—who endure. Faulkner lived in a society that hated females, and Faulkner captures that hatred in fiction.

Gentler pictures of American women are also accurately drawn by men. Langston Hughes, in his poem “Mother to Son,” for example, couples the hard with the soft, includes historical subjugation through hints and through what he leaves unsaid, but ends on a note of triumph and promise. Hughes gives readers woman as mother, but with “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” he gives readers the implication that this mother has never been an American princess. Hughes’s portrait of a mother recalls the American woman’s pioneer drive, her having always done whatever had to be done to keep herself and her family alive. The mother demands courage to step into the darkness, where faith is needed. She challenges her son to keep moving when he is too tired to stand or has been knocked down. The hardness of the poem lies in the sense that, even if the son stops, the mother will not. The poem captures a woman’s validation of herself as a person in her own right.


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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.

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