Feminist criticism

Definition of feminist criticism

A feminist critical perspective explores how a text reveals the way in which female experience is presented. In order to do this a feminist might ask the following questions:

  • Does the presentation of female experience in character and action by male writers misrepresent them?
    • This question challenges sexist points of view
  • Are women silent in certain works of literature?
    • How different would these texts seem if the female point of view were more fully represented?
  • How should the work of overlooked or neglected female writers, be viewed?

Using these bullet points it is possible to make a feminist critique of Wilfred Owen’s poetry.

Women in Owen’s poetry

Owen writes about a range of women in his poetry. They are all safe back in England on the Home front.

Negative references

  • In Disabled Owen writes scornfully of the ‘giddy jilts’ and ‘Meg’, whose love of a uniform sent her boyfriend to the front where he lost his limbs
  • In this poem Owen is also dismissive of the women who respond to the disabled man as if he was a ‘queer disease’ and whose eyes avoid his injuries
  • The mother in S.I.W is as bad as the father in wanting her son to get a Blighty one (a severe enough wound to send him home but not enough to kill him)
  • The sisters of Tim in S.I.W. want to be able to fight. Owen sees them as ignorant romantics
  • In Dulce et Decorum Est Owen addresses Jessie Pope, the writer of many pro-war poems encouraging young boys to join up, bitterly and ironically as ‘my friend’

Positive or ambiguous references

  • Anthem for Doomed Youth is one of the few poems in which Owen writes about girls with as much sympathy as boys. In this poem the girls are as much a part of the ‘doomed youth’ as their brothers and lovers
  • In The Letter the man’s wife, ‘my old girl’, is a sympathetic character, as are her daughter Nell, to whom he sends kisses, and the mother-in-law who might ‘spare half a sov’. We get the sense that they are not part of the Order of the White Feather (the women and girls who handed out white feathers to non-uniformed men on the assumption that they had not joined up out of cowardice)
  • The Virgin Mary in Le Christianisme is an ambiguous figure. She smiles on for war ‘to flatter her’; yet Owen predicts that she too will be battered by it like her son Jesus has been.

The ‘silent' role of women 

In his poetry Owen only mentions the women on the Home front. There is no reference in any of his poems to the women who served on the front line such as the girls who drove ambulances up to the front to take the dead and injured back to the casualty clearing stations. The only mention Owen makes of nurses is of those back in England. It is unlikely that Owen would not have met any women during his time on the Front, but his subject was that of a war experienced by men. The poetry was in his pity for them.

Neglected female writers

Women wrote some excellent war poetry and literature. Although by no means overlooked nowadays, women like Vera Brittain and Margaret Postgate Cole were writing at the same time as Owen but were not part of the exclusively male war poetry tradition.

More on Margaret Postgate Cole?

More on Vera Brittain?

Recommended reading

  • Not So Quiet by Z. Helen Smith is a semi -autobiographical novel about young women ambulance drivers at the front. Published by Feminist Press at the City University of New York
  • A Diary without Dates 1917 Enid Bagnold Published by Dodo Press
  • Scars upon My Heart: Women's Poetry and Verse of the First World War (1981), edited by Catherine Reilly. Published by Virago Press
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