Portrayal of women in literature

Negative ideas of women?

The predominance of male authors

Until comparatively recently, the majority of published writers were men and the portrayal of women in literature was inevitably one-sided. In the ancient world literacy was severely limited, and the majority of those who could write were male. However, the contribution of women to oral culture should not be underestimated – in folk songs, stories and nursery rhymes – a tradition which eventually fed into written culture.

The influence of Judaeo-Christian teaching

Western literature has been seriously affected by a distortion of Judaeo-Christian teaching about women.

‘there is neither ... male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28, TNIV).

He commanded men to

‘love their wives as their own bodies' (Ephesians 5:28 TNIV), ‘just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her'.
  • In spite of references to women being silent in church (notably in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35), Paul is quite prepared to list women in church leadership amongst his commendations: Romans 16:1-16 includes a deaconess and perhaps an apostle amongst the female ‘saints' and ‘fellow-workers'.
    However, by the time Chaucer was writing, the Judeo-Christian approach had been significantly re-interpreted.

Changing emphasis

St AugustineSome people are inclined to blame St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), who saw fallen sexuality as a key component of original sin. Augustine, like Paul, is often misunderstood, but he was undoubtedly influenced by his own youthful struggles with lust. He also propounded the view that Mary, the mother of Jesus, remained a perpetual virgin – this view has been maintained by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, although there is mention in the New Testament of Jesus having siblings.

By the Middle Ages, it was commonly accepted that Eve was principally to blame for the disobedience that led to the fall of humanity. Greek ideas had replaced Jewish in Christian thinking, including the notion that the soul was good but the body evil. Heretical though this might have been, it didn't stop sexuality being regarded as somehow evil. One of the few recorded medieval women writers, the mystic Margery Kempe, aspired to celibacy even within marriage.

Madonna or whore?

MadonnaUnsurprisingly, medieval stereotypes of women were quite polarised. Women were seen either as saints capable of rejecting their sexuality totally or as the very embodiments of temptation. The cult of the Virgin Mary grew alongside the view that, although child-bearing was an unfortunate necessity, sex was not really a good thing and women were dangerous temptresses.

The courtly love tradition (See Women in literature: Courtly love ethic) might be seen as giving women an elevated status. Few women however had the status of ‘lady'. And some of those who did were rather ambiguous morally: the great romances of Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristram and Isolde, were based on what were essentially adulterous relationships, that resulted in personal or social tragedy.

Chaucer's women

Although women feature strongly in Chaucer's earlier works, such as The Boke of the Duchess and Troilus and Criseyde, we only find three women on the pilgrimage described in The Canterbury Tales:

  • The Wife of Bath
  • The Prioress
  • ‘Another nun' who accompanies her but is hardly mentioned again.

The two principal women reflect the only ways that women at the time could achieve independence and status: in the Church or in a trade. The Wife of Bath represents those whose skills, such as weaving, gave them financial independence, though Chaucer's character seems to have grown wealthy mainly by marrying a series of rich old men.

It is tempting to see the Wife as a champion of female rights, and her Tale brings out the idea that women should have maistrie over men, but the Wife is of course a character in a story written by a man. She has had five husbands, like the woman of Samaria who is challenged by Jesus (in John 4:17-18), 'withouten oother compaignye in youthe'. Her fifth husband, whom she married for love rather than riches, proved to be less compliant – and very well read. She claims to have put him in his place eventually, but Chaucer enjoys making the Wife recount (and try to refute) all the misogynistic tales with which he has assaulted her.

More on Chaucer's women: Some critics have seen a debate within The Canterbury Tales on marriage and on the respective roles of husband and wife. The Tales associated with this debate, apart from the Wife of Bath's, include the Clerk's Tale, the Merchant's Tale and the Franklin's Tale. The Miller's Tale might also be considered.

Renaissance woman

Chaucer's Wife of Bath may be a stereotype – the harridan or ‘shrew' is found in other medieval writings (such as Noah's wife, in some of the Mystery plays).

  • By the 16th century, there were other stereotypes, fostered by the courtly love tradition and by the emergence of the sonnet and Arcadian idylls. The idealised ladies of most sonnets or the shepherdesses of the pastoral verses bear little resemblance to real women.
  • By the time of Shakespeare one can detect a note of cynicism – in Sonnet 130 he writes ‘my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun...' and proceeds to turn the conventional image of the mistress on its head. This woman's breath ‘reeks'.

Women in Shakespeare's plays

The resurgence of drama in the late 16th century allowed for the presentation of female roles on stage, and these reach their climax in the women portrayed by Shakespeare and Webster in particular.

  • Women were acted by young men, which meant there were fewer parts written for them and they often had less to say – in the earlier plays, anyway. Romeo speaks much more than Juliet. There is also an unusually high proportion of single fathers in the plays.
  • Whether the result of good actors or his own desire for more complexity, Shakespeare's later heroines have plenty to say for themselves. Interestingly, some of them are most articulate when disguised as men, e.g.
    • Rosalind (As You Like It)
    • Viola (Twelfth Night)
    • Portia (The Merchant of Venice)
  • ‘Infinite variety' seems to sum up the various female roles – it is hard to make generalisations about Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Desdemona. Most are seen as wives or daughters, but nieces are often more articulate, and there is at least one dominant mother: Volumnia in Coriolanus.
  • Webster's women characters, notably the Duchess of Malfi and Vittoria Corombona, are amongst the first to be overtly sexual, rather than just the objects of another's desire.

The seventeenth century

There is a wide range of female representation in the literature of the era, although the common stereotypes are still prevalent:

  • Mistresses still appear to be coy, in the poems of such varied writers as Donne, Herrick and Marvell.
  • Much has been written about Milton's portrayal of Eve, in Paradise Lost. Superficially, he could often sound misogynistic, but closer readings show much more complexity in his treatment of the first woman. In his time, Milton was actually accused of being too progressive, thanks to pamphlets he wrote on divorce, and it is important to separate Milton, the child of his time, from the thinker who pushed boundaries philosophically and imaginatively. His Eve had a human dignity that reflected Milton's deeply held Christian values, imperfect though her presentation may be by modern standards.
  • Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is also part of the established literary canon, and has had immense influence; it is easily overlooked that Part Two of the book is about Christiana, the wife of the original pilgrim. She has her own moral strength, even though she has male protection for much of her pilgrimage. The established canon of literature largely overlooked female writers, but two at least from this period are now taken seriously:
    • Emilia Lanier (1569-1645)
    • Aphra Behn (1640-89)

Women on the stage

After 1660, female actors were allowed on stage in England, and sexual intrigue became the staple of the theatre. Amongst the stereotypes of Restoration comedy were sexually voracious young widows and older women. The witty, intelligent heroines of the 18th century comedies of manners follow a tradition extending from Wycherley and Congreve through to Goldsmith and Sheridan. This tradition also drew on the stereotypes of the Italian Commedia dell'arte, such as the witty servant girl, the bawdy wench, the dutiful daughter, the disobedient daughter and the unattainable angel – stereotypes which have survived to this day in some Hollywood presentations.

The rise of the novel

Prose narrative emerged in the 18th century novel as a dominant literary form, and with it a much more nuanced portrayal of women.

  • Initially, the novel depicted women as viewed by men, and the typical heroines were either paragons of virtue or of vice: for every Pamela Andrews or Clarissa Harlowe there was a Moll Flanders or a Fanny Hill.
  • Where Defoe, Richardson and Fielding had cleared a path, women novelists soon followed. Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe and supremely Jane Austen depicted life and society from a woman's perspective.
  • Women in Dickens have been seen as stereotypes: the harridans, the silly little wives, the femme fatales, but generalisations are dangerous. In his late novel Our Mutual Friend, Lizzie Hexham is a rounded, psychologically believable character.
  • Thackeray's Vanity Fair is noted for the strength of its female roles.
  • Women come into their own supremely in the novels of the Brontë sisters. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë depicts a woman who takes control of her own destiny – in a way that none of Jane Austen's heroines do, with the possible exception of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.
  • Two of Mrs Gaskell's novels, Ruth and Mary Barton, focus on the economic realities of women within society.
  • George Eliot believed that duty supplied personal purpose and meaning, which is reflected in many of the female characters in her novels, who are notable for their psychological complexity.

The modern perception

Over the last 150 years, novelists, whether male or female, have explored the psychology and social roles of women with increasing depth:

  • Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence, E M Forster and Virginia Woolf have all made significant contributions to the perception of women in the literary canon, particularly in challenging traditional perceptions about the ‘purity' of women.
  • The influence of other European writers during the 19th century and subsequently has been significant. Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina contain almost archetypal characters, and dramatists such as Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov and Brecht have presented memorable female characters.
  • Women writers, such as Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing, stand with male writers of the 20th century as significant literary figures.
  • More recently, the feminist movement has produced a more conscious depiction of the roles of women. Angela Carter's reworking of traditional fairy tales and Margaret Attwood's Handmaid's Tale are key texts in this respect.

More on female roles in literature: Depictions of motherhood can be explored alongside presentations of women as daughters or wives. The femme fatale, from the Arthurian Morgan le Fay to Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci also makes a fascinating study.

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