Women in Literature

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At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3,037 words.)