Literature Becomes You

The Evolution of Woman in Literature

Over time, and in many avenues of expression, literature, popular culture, etc. women have been given characteristics that do not support who woman really is, thereby giving society a negative and unreal view of who and what a true woman is and does. Although this is still a problem in our present society, I believe that many authors, both male and female, have paved the way for a better and more precise representation of who woman really is, and this process has not just surfaced in the 20th century.

The Stages of Bringing Women to Literature

Elaine Showalter breaks down how women’s literature has evolved, starting in the Victorian era in A Literature of their Own. Showalter divides this movement into three categories:

The Feminine 1840-1880

The Feminine phase is categorized by the women writers of the mid to late 19th century. These writers include, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot (George Eliot is Mary Anne Evan’s male pseudonym) and many more well known female authors of the time. This period begins with the male pseudonym first being used in the 1840s, and ends with George Eliot’s death. The Feminine phase is characterized by the women writers who emerged into the public sphere of writing that was the domain of man, these women writers came into writing with a mixture of obedience and resistance, a theme that is reflected in their literature.

The Feminist 1880-1920

The Feminist phase is categorized by the rebellion of the subordinate of society, the woman, with lashing out against the traditional norms and values of women in society. Through their literature women were fighting for their right and sovereignty to be recognized. Literature was provided in forms of social commentaries, and women would illustrate their sufferings in various modes of society, such as through the suffering of the poor, slaves, the working class and so on. Novels would be written in their traditional form of the destruction of the erring heroine, but the storyline consists of the problem of women’s oppression in marriage and the economy.

The Female 1920-Present

The Female phase is categorized by self-discovery and a freedom from the opposition of real woman. This phase consisted of women writers turning inward for their search of identity, but this phase is concerned with bringing female sex connotations and sexuality to the forefront of literature. However, Showalter criticizes the works of female writers in this stage because their works lack actual contact with the female body and sexuality (The Victorian Web).

What This All Means 

Even though Showalter only looks at how women writers benefit women in literature which has a direct influence on women in society as a whole, I do believe that men are trying to help women as well. James Joyce’s “Penelope” was written throughout the Feminist and Female stages and illustrates Molly’s sexuality, which allows the reader to connect with the female body, and illustrates Molly’s rebellion of the traditions of marriage, even though the author is male. This chapter of “Ulysses” voices the feelings of the women in the early 20th century, and follows the unpunctuated soliloquy of Molly Bloom. So, not only are women writing woman into being as Cixous states,  but men are apparently trying to help us too.

Thoughts on “Penelope”

A Woman’s Thoughts

Reading James Joyce’s “Penelope” from Ulysses is no walk in the park. It is a text of a woman’s thoughts… thoughts that run on as I’m sure most people’s thoughts have a tendency of doing… at least mine do… But once I was able to navigate my way through Molly’s never punctuated, and never ending dialogue I was able to come to the conclusion that James Joyce has written this chapter of Ulysses in order to write woman into being as Cixous states woman needs to be. At first Molly’s dialogue seems to be a confessional of her life, one that includes the ups and downs of her marriage, her affair, and her daughter. However, when analyzing it with Cixous and Showalter in mind, I have come away from my reading with many observations of the time this piece was written in, and for what reason Joyce has written a dialogue in a run-on sentence in the form of a woman’s thoughts.

The time periods in which Showalter divides women in literature up becomes apparent in Joyce’s “Penelope”. This work was written in both the Feminist and the Female stages and both are only too apparent in Joyce’s chapter of Ulysses titled “Penelope”, however, I will focus on the female stage because it is the most important stage. The chapter is so prominent in connecting with the female body, that the book was banned from publication in all parts of the world for some time, with Paris being the first city to publish this book with the help of Sylvia Beach.

The 'New' Woman

The ‘New’ Woman

The 'Old' Woman

The ‘Old’ Woman

The Female stage becomes prominent with Molly’s dialogue giving intimate details of her daily rituals and routines, giving the reader a connection with her body, because of the way in which she describes herself. Molly openly illustrates what she finds pleasure in and what she thinks society has done to women. Society has placed a certain value on women’s bodies, and Molly wants to reject this value. Molly states that women’s breasts are on display for men, “they’re supposed to represent beauty placed up there like those statues in the museum,” (Joyce 10) but this only hinders woman’s progress within society, because a woman’s body should not be viewed in such terms. Women’s breasts do not just have an aesthetic function for men, they mean much more, breasts sustain life, and give woman pleasure, in no way should a man benefit from something that a woman possesses, only because she is the ‘subordinate’ figure in society. It is because women are viewed in an aesthetically pleasing way that their entire being is devalued by the gaze. Cixous states, “your body is yours, take it” (Cixous 876) and that is what Joyce is trying to do with “Penelope”. He is trying to write woman into being by giving her her body back, he is “subscribing the female body without prescribing female value” (Humphreys Jan 24).

A Little Help From Our Male Counterparts

In a blog called “Thanks, Guys: Five ways Men are Fighting Sexism” author Hugo Schwyzer outlines five ways in which men are trying to stop sexism. Number one on the list Men against assholes and Misogyny: More of them than you think, illustrates how men are upset with the perception of a misogynist male figure and are speaking out about it. A valid point, and one that should be dealt with, however, that the list is missing is men against the misrepresented woman figure. Why is it that a Victoria Secret type model is the representative figure of women for many clothing and lingerie commercials. These women share the same body type, however their skin tone changes as well as their hair colour and cut. The idea behind this is that women will identify with a model because of the similarities between skin tone and hair colour, and think ‘I’ll look like that if I purchase,’ for example, ‘lingerie from Victoria’s Secret’. But as my 18 year old cousin’s boyfriend put it “Jigs, no one wants to date a straw”. If men really feel this way, then their thoughts need to be voiced, and placed on Schwyzer’s list of ways men can help us women out in our struggle to kill the old woman who is making it difficult for the new to survive (Cixous 881). Men, take note from James Joyce, a man who writes a woman into being who, is a true representation of who woman really is.

Freedom from the ‘Old’ Through the Body and Mind

From the Victorian era to the present women have had to correspond in their body and mind with the features that society has established. In response, Cixous wants to free all suppressed sexual desires and impulses that women have, because the societal image that has been established for woman restricts her in her entirety. There are many figures in popular culture and literature that show the two sides of women in society, the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’, and I for one find it astonishing that James Joyce can write woman into being in the early 20th century, but authors like E.L James, a female writer, so easily writes a terrible model of woman into being in her novels “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

How is it that Charlotte Bronte can write “Jane Eyre” in 1847 with a leading female character who is independent and pro-feminist for its time, a time in which women are viewed as the subordinate in society, and then we have writers like James, writing the ‘Old’ woman into being in the 21st century? “Jane Eyre” follows the life of its main character Jane and watches as she grows into an independent woman who takes care of herself. When marriage is proposed by Mr. Rochester Jane excepts, but when light is shed on Mr. Rochester’s previous marriage, and the fact that his wife is still alive, Jane leaves Mr. Rochester and finds new employment. He begs her to move to the South of France to live as husband and wife but Jane refuses becomes of her morals. It is only on Jane’s terms that she returns to Mr. Rochester to find the house in ruins, and decides to marry him.

Not only is James’ book written and read enthusiastically, it has been rated a bestseller of all time by The Telegraph a UK based newspaper. You heard me… bestseller of all time! A book that follows a girl who is easily manipulated into bed and a sexually dominate/subordinate relationship with a man years older and maturer than her. A redeeming quality in the book comes when Anastasia is told by her boyfriend Christian Grey why he likes dominant/subordinate relationships. In an act of disgust she leaves him, tells him it’s over and leaves him behind her! But wait… after only a week, she’s reduced to the shell of the woman she used to be, and she’s lost ten pounds, and runs back to Christian Grey, after a WHOLE (that’s like eternity right?) week. It seems a win win, right? NOPE. But I’m sure many women who have read this book would say, ‘Lucky! She gets the guy and loses weight!’ These thoughts come to mind due to the view of women in society, a view of what women should look like and how they should behave. The sad truth, I know all this because I too bought into the fame of this novel. This novel is a giant leap backwards for women if you ask me. Oh and the movie adaptation is coming out soon too, just another avenue in which women are brought into being in a completely false light.

golden girls

Golden Girls to the Rescue!

Given, the Golden Girls aren’t exactly current popular culture, the show did first air about thirty years ago, and I’m sure a show about old women living together isn’t exactly an eye catcher to the audiences of today, however I do believe that Golden Girls is show that shows different realities of woman through its various four characters. This show illustrates how women’s lives are not all about marriage and family, that women’s lives don’t end with that, but continue on to finding a new place in life. Blanche in particular is a character I adore because she does not follow society’s model of how a woman in her 50s or 60s, it’s never revealed in the show, should act. No, she does not pass the Bechdel test, (1) two women (2) who have a conversation that does not involve men. But she doesn’t need to pass Bechdel’s test when she passes Cixous’. Cixous pleads women to take back their body, and help to write (perform) ‘New’ woman into being through freeing the suppressed desires of women. Blanche answers that call, through outwardly displaying her desire for sex and following through. She is unapologetic for being such a sex hound and behaving the way she does. At this age it is common to think of women in their sixties, who are divorced or widowed, to be in retirement homes, or living with their children and knitting booties all day. However, these four witty older women have made their own family and support and lean on each other while being confortable sharing their sexual desires and experiences. These women break the mould of the ‘Old’ woman and break in a new mould for the ‘New’ for woman at any age.

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2 Responses to Literature Becomes You

  1. nicolemcnaught says:

    Caitlin, your blog pointed out something I always wondered about current writing (not just books but other mediums) and when authors like Joyce, Shakespeare, and Defoe wrote (I know that timeline is so wide). My thoughts are how did those writers of the past write what they did while today’s writers seem to write more conserved pieces. I also like how you are pointing out how can something like “Fifty Shades” be written in the 2010’s and get all this attention and awards when we are moving backwards, making women seem submissive instead of independent and strong. It seems so silly to not think of the book in that way, however until reading your blog I have not, I took it more of a sexual relationship with roles that did not translate to more than the bedroom (forgive me it has been a year since I have read it).

  2. doctorsara says:

    These are incredibly long posts and you try to cover a lot of ground – too much, I think. You need to edit you work to a more manageable size and focus. Plus, please be sure to include more of the course material. You have a lot of really great information here, but can you make it more succinct? Do you need to pack 100 years of history in one post? Think about it.

    Please do not feel you have to post my comments.

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