Effects of Feminism on Literature
Although it was 1929 when author Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, stating, “Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems”, the portrayal of women in literature remains a topic much discussed today. (Woolf) In order to evaluate how and why women are portrayed the way they are today, one must look at historical evidence of the roles of women in both society and literature, and how they have changed over time. In Ancient Greece, women had a limited role in society, and this devaluation of women is reflected in the literature of the time. By the 16th century, one can begin to see the early foundations of feminist ideas, such as a right to education and an ability to have some legal rights, leading authors such as Shakespeare to have a wider portrayal of women in their literature. By the 18th century, one can see a growth in published female authors and more women playing respected roles in the literature, although not hitting today’s feminist theory standards desiring total equality. However, the role of women in society has continually changed and improved, which is shown by the literature; by the 20th century, one can see feminist revisions, rewriting literature informed by feminist literary criticism, even of books that were considered groundbreaking when they were written.
Beginning with Greek mythology, going into Shakespearian plays, continuing into classic novels then finally looking at modern feminist revisions, one can see how, as women are able to have a more valued and wider range of roles in society, there are similar, positive trends in the portrayal of women in literature, showing the importance of literature in understanding other time periods. Most, if not all, of the records left from Ancient Greece are from men, few of them favorable to women. Men such as Aristotle, Demosthenes, Hyperides and Pericles all made statements about women, saying that men were superior, women were meant to stay in the house and that they were regularly a source of “curse to man.”, providing negative temptation. The beliefs about women in Ancient Greece is best shown by Pericles quote, stating, “A woman’s reputation is highest when men say little about her, whether it be good or evil.
” (Lefkowitz) This depreciation of women was evident in many of the records, with some of the best examples being the literature. One of the most famous aspects of Ancient Greek culture was their mythology, which is why one must first look at the women in Greek mythology to get an accurate sense of the portrayal of women in Ancient Greek society and literature in particular. Gaia, Goddess of the Earth, was one of the first beings according to their mythology and it could even be said that she created the whole world herself. Despite that, there are very few if any stories about her directly; the vast majority of stories involving her just include her as the mother of whoever the myth is really about. (Osborn.
) In addition, another important women in Greek mythology was Hera, Goddess of Marriage and Queen of Olympus. Hera was held in high esteem, indicating the importance that marriage and family had in the society. However, when one looks at Hera, they see that most stories are about her jealousy and vindictive nature. First, one can look at her relationship with Zeus who tricked and raped Hera, forcing her to marry him while continually cheating on her with other women. Despite this infidelity from Zeus, Hera is generally viewed as the bad one.
Furthermore, when Zeus did cheat on Hera, she regularly punished either the women or the children, which shows that women were considered to be purposefully seductive and therefore responsible for the act and also that women, even the Queen of Olympus, were ruled by their emotions and not logical. (Ching) By looking at the portrayal of women in Greek mythology, one can learn much about Ancient Greek society. Another seminal work from this time, The Odyssey, also reflects the narrow view of women during this time period. At the time, the only role women had was the role of being a mother and wife, which is reflected in the epic poem. When Penelope is grieving over the loss of her husband, her son Telemachus admonishes, “So, mother, go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks, the distaff and the loom, and keep the women working hard as well.
As for giving orders, men will see to that, but I most of all: I hold the reins of power in this house.” (Homer 89). His rebuke shows how women were consistently devalued and the men, even their own children, had power over them. At the time, women were largely seen as evil, meant to stop men from achieving power, shown by the Sirens who attempt to stop him, saying, “Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Archaians, and you’re your shop, so that you can listen here to our singing; for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black shop until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips” (Homer 277.) Although his shipmates help him avoid this temptation, he is not so lucky with Circe and he spends seven whole years wasting time with her.
Based off the roles of women in The Odyssey, one can learn more about the patriarchal society in which it was written. Another important literary time period, one that should be included when discussing the history of literature, is the work of Shakespeare and others during the 16th century. In 16th century Europe, women still had very limited rights. Girls were not educated at schools while women had very few rights with the expectation that they would marry, raise kids and be submissive to their husband. Although there was slight movements towards women with jobs outside of the home and how society felt about women, there was very little change, viewing a women as “a fragile delicate flower incapable of making decisions beyond selecting the menu and ensuring her many children were taught moral values” (Thomas). However, in literature such as Shakespeare’s works, there are compelling portrayals of women with varied and important roles although they still do not hold up to today’s feminist ideals.
Although they are obviously not perfect by any means, Shakespeare’s 16th century work does show some of the very beginnings of positive trends in terms of the portrayal of women in literature. One of Shakespeare’s most fascinating works, particularly when looking at the women in the play, is Macbeth. One of Shakespeare’s most interesting women to examine is Lady Macbeth, as she both challenges and conforms to gender expectations. At the time, most women were expected to be submissive to their husband and a good mother to their children, an expectation she challenges. She is not submissive to Macbeth; in fact, she is the exact opposite, seen when she states, “When you durst do it, you were a man” (Shakespeare I.vii.
50). In doing this, she is convincing him to kill somebody, showing her power. In addition, Shakespeare makes another powerful statement about gender, suggesting that men were expected to want power. In addition, she subverts the expectation of being motherly, stating, “I would, while it was smiling in my face/ have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums/ and dash’d the brains out” (Shakespeare I.vii.62-64).
However, Shakespeare’s Macbeth does include some retrogressive elements as well. First, at this time, most powerful women were presented as evil, a stereotype Lady Macbeth fits. One can also see that the women internalizing the beliefs of a patriarchal society, with Lady Macbeth saying, “Come, you spirits/ that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” (Shakespeare I.v.40-42), showing that even she views the traits that might stop her from being able to kill Duncan as womanly. Furthermore, the beliefs of the society are shown by the way the characters handle the situation, with Macbeth becoming power-hungry and Lady Macbeth eventually committing suicide.
Due to the combination of having important, dominant women with power but also still fitting many unfortunate, historical stereotypes, Macbeth is an intriguing novel to look at from a feminist standpoint. In addition, another Shakespeare play with interesting portrayals of women in Twelfth Night, as it helps to show the important yet undervalued role of women in 16th century society. First of all, the situation provides a look at gender roles as the audience would see a man pretending to play a woman who is pretending to play a man, indicating that gender is not as fluid as most people during this time believed. Viola, in order to find work, must dress and act as man to survive. However, although she is forced to play as a man in order to survive, Shakespeare does make her into one of the most important characters in the play, a positive force who is not stopped by her gender.
In addition, Shakespeare also challenges some gender roles, with Olivia pursuing who she thinks is Cesario. After first meeting Cesario, Olivia states, “I love thee so, that, maugre all my pride/nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.” (III.i.159-60.
) This is unusual because not only is Olivia playing the traditional role of the man, she is also courting somebody below her level in society. Although these are some examples of more progressive actions, there are also some more traditional beliefs about gender expressed in the play. For example, when Orsino is talking to Viola who is pretending to be Cesario, he states, “Then let thy love be younger than thyself/ or thy affection cannot hold the bent/ For women are as roses, whose fair flower,/ being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.” (II.vi. 41-45) Orsino, in this statement, indicates that women are useless after a specific age.
Although Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night does conform to some roles, it also provides an interesting challenge to traditional societal norms about gender. Many feminist movements took place and many classic novels were written in the 18th and 19th century, making it a crucial time to examine. Modern feminism was nonexistent; however, some ideas of feminism were beginning to show up in society. Historically women had been valued based on their gentleness, purity and domesticity. However, during this time period, women began to feel that they deserved more rights; they should be able to go to school, to vote, to have jobs and to overall be more valued in society. (Jackson) This led to significant social changes which had impacts on virtually every aspect of life, including the newly progressive literature.
In 1847, Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre, a book that could be considered one of the first feminist novels, a revolutionary work for its time. From the beginning, Jane Eyre is not submissive or dumb; she is quite spirited, telling Ms. Reed that, “I am glad you are no relation of mine. I will ever call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to visit you when I am grown up; and if anyone asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.
” (Bronte) As a young women, Jane ends up agreeing to marry a man named Rochester; however, after learning that he is keeping his other wife locked in their attic, she runs away. She meets another man, but then eventually goes back to Mr. Rochester and marries him. At the end of the novel, Jane states, “I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth.
I hold myself supremely blest- blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am ever more absolutely bone of his bone; and flesh of his flesh.” (Bronte) Some readers from a feminist viewpoint are upset; after all this time, her happiness is only when married and she goes back to the man who once kept his other wife in the attic. On the other hand, others are satisfied; Jane has followed her heart to who she loves and is happy with her choices. (Silberling) Written by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre is a fascinating book from a feminist standpoint, where the reader can see the past that led to the creation of the book, the role of women when the book was written and how the role of women has continually been changing and improving. Although women were beginning to have broader, more positive roles in both society and literature, there were still some problematic opinions from the historical devaluation of women; in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf discusses this and how it continually affects women.
In this work, which was originally a series of lectures, Woolf invents an imaginary sister for Shakespeare, then goes on to discuss why she would be unable to be as successful as William Shakespeare despite having just as much talent. She discusses what exactly fiction about women entails, explaining, “The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light.” (Woolf 1) Woolf concludes that they are all mixed together; for women’s representation in literature, among many factors, women authors must be able to write. She then goes on to discuss the difficulties for women authors. In short, her message is that for there to be a satisfactory portrayal of women, women must have money and privacy in order to write.
With its stimulating sentiments about women and literature, A Room of One’s Own is one of the crucial books to consider when looking at a timeline of the portrayal of women in literature throughout history. Although these works were groundbreaking for the time, 20th century literary critics still were not satisfied with the portrayal of women in literature and decided to rewrite them as informed by current feminist ideas, known as feminist revisions. Two of the most famous feminist revisions are Penelopiad, a rewriting of The Odyssey, and Wide Sargasso Sea, a rewriting of Jane Eyre. Written by Margaret Atwood, Penelopiad is The Odyssey told from a now-dead Penelope’s point of view, viewing her life as a modern-day feminist. Penelope discusses Odysseus who rigged a game forcing her to marry him and continuously lied about his stories.
She states, “And so I was handed over to Odysseus like a package of meat.” (Atwood 39) Penelope discusses her life with Odysseus, discussing how she had no authority as a woman. She also discusses holding off the suitors who are only after the treasures of the kingdom by doing things such as weaving the Laertes shroud to buy time. However, even when this was discovered by the angry suitor, Penelope defends, “I had not been trying to catch men like flies; on the contrary, I’d merely been trying to avoid entanglement myself.” (Atwood 119) In addition, Penelope discusses dealing with the local gossip about her, raising her son Telemachus and worrying about Odysseus.
Finally, the story ends with Odysseus returning home, the slaughter of the 12 maids who also had their stories told throughout the novel and the result of the maids’ anger. In The Penelopiad, one learns the stories of Penelope and the maids, providing not only a more in-depth understanding of The Odyssey but a new perspective that offers insight on both Ancient Greek and modern-day society and how the role women play in society has changed. In another famous feminist revision, Wide Sargasso Sea written by Jean Rhys, looks at Jane Eyre from another, modern-day feminist perspective. The story focuses on Mr. Rochester’s first wife, the women in the attic.
Antoinette was born in Jamaica, and beginning focuses on racial tensions and her inability to fit in with any race. She is married and sent off again to England with Mr. Rochester. He then hears rumors that she had been previously married to a family member, so he becomes distrustful of Antoinette. She then drugs him and in retaliation, he sleeps with the maid. She then goes mad, and ends up locked up with only Grace Poole as company.
She has dreams about escaping and setting fire to the house, and the story ends with her leaving the attic with a candle. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys tells the story from the unique perspective of the madwomen in the attic, allowing the reader to learn more about how women’s roles, specifically women of color, have changed over time in society. By looking at all of these works written over time, one can see how, because the work so strongly reflects the gender roles in the society at the time, literature makes for an interesting way to analyze and learn about our world. Beginning with Ancient Greek society, one can see through Greek mythology and works like The Odyssey, there were strict gender roles with very little ability or expectation for women to have the important roles in the community. Continuing into the 16th century where women still had an extremely narrow role in society, one can see how the women in Shakespeare’s works among others had similar restrictions because of the oppressive society.
Then, in the 18th and 19th century, as the beginning of feminist ideas were beginning to occur, one can see similar improvements in the portrayal of women in literature in works from authors like Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Bronte. Finally, in modern day society, one can see that as people have continually evaluated and adapted their beliefs about the capabilities of women, the literature reflects that, leading to things like feminist revisions such as The Penelopiad and Wide Sargasso Sea. By looking at literary works from Ancient Greece, the 16th century, the 19th century and the 21st century, one can view the history of humanity and women in particular and see how people started, how the world have gotten where it is today and how culture might continue in the future, showing the importance of and the value of analyzing the portrayal of women in literature.