Thursday, 12 March 2015

How The Portrayal of Women in Literature Has Changed

by Catriona Ellis

“But how interesting it would have been if the relationships between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple.” -Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Discuss the Changing Representation of Women and Women’s Relationships in Literature.
Radclyffe Hall, 1928
Literature is an ever-evolving, continuously changing medium and whilst it develops, so do its protagonists, readers and writers. For the most part, the context of production restricts and places boundaries upon what can, or cannot be written, what will be well received and what could be considered ‘socially acceptable’ during eras when such a notion could define an artistic expression. Historically, it has been this context of production that has limited the representation of women in literature; however, the depiction has also been altered considerably depending on whether the author of such literature is male or female. I would argue that the illustration of women has not so much changed by way of changing for the ‘better’ or ‘worse’ (because if we are to discuss such a notion we must first define the lexis ‘better’ and ‘worse’ with respects to women in literature,) but that, as history advances and we look at literature closer to the present day, it is possible to highlight issues linked to women discussed in novels, plays and poems that would previously have been considered unspeakable. For instance, the title character of Jane Austen’s Emma is famously described as, “handsome, clever and rich” which to a contemporary reader does not seem unusual, but in 1815 the idea that Emma is a headstrong woman who doesn’t necessarily see the need to marry would have been a new concept. Similarly, openly discussing the problems facing the modern woman in Kabul would not have been possible forty years ago when Mohammed Zahir Shah was deposed, yet in 2012 The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez allowed just such issues to be easily accessible to a wide audience. As history develops, so do the characters of literature, and none more so than women.
Jeanette Winterson, 1980s
Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is an example of another relatively new concept for female characters in literature: homosexuality. As Kilian Meloy points out, “In a historical sense, literature as we understand it is a fairly new innovation, and the current concept of homosexuality is even fresher from the cultural oven. It's no great surprise, then, that gay literature — or even gay characters in literature — are so relatively new as to still be shiny.” Therefore, it may not seem surprising that the Winterson’s novel was published so recently as 1985. Whether Jeanette Winterson was not prepared to write such a revealing, semi-autobiographical book before the age of twenty-five, or whether she felt restricted by the zeitgeist of the time is unknown, however I would argue that the reason for Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit being published so recently is a mixture of the two. Women in literature may have been gaining more liberty with very passing year in the 1980’s, but the style of Oranges is still experimental and even to a modern day reader the content can be shocking. However, this is more due to the reception that the reaction of Jeanette’s Mother to Jeanette’s sexuality would have caused, rather than the revelation that the protagonist is homosexual.

The representation of the main female characters of the novel is highly varied. Whereas Jeanette (the protagonist)’s mother is unaccepting of Jeanette’s homosexuality, Elsie Norris (a friend of Jeanette’s) simply accepts Jeanette for who she is and doesn’t question her sexuality. This is a microcosm of a real, and, I hasten to add, grossly simplified, world; there are some who will not accept homosexual relationships and others who do not judge solely on an acquaintance’s sexuality. Potentially these two sweepingly generalised groups of people could be representative of the pre-nineteenth century reactions to lesbianism, and especially the depiction of homosexuality in literature, and post-nineteenth century, when gay literature became considerably more common and it became not unheard-of to include homosexual characters in literature. Virginia Woolf, an openly homosexual woman herself, fell easily into the second category, saying, “Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.” Within A Room of One’s Own, Woolf discusses the controversy of Radclyffe Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, which openly debates lesbianism and was published in 1928. The novel, “was banned after official medical advice that it would encourage female homosexuality and lead to 'a social and national disaster'”, even though it, “got no more racy than 'she kissed her full on the lips like a lover'” according to David Smith in January 2005. However, the case of A Well of Loneliness clearly illustrates that the representation of women’s sexuality in literature in the early 1900’s was not open to homosexuality, but it also serves to demonstrate how the representation has changed so much since 1928, as even by 1985 when Oranges was published, this kind of national outcry to the discussion of lesbianism in literature was no longer prevalent.
To conclude, the representation of women in literature is all the time becoming more liberated. It is continually becoming more acceptable to directly examine any issue, including homosexuality, through literature not only written about women, but also by female authors. The majority of literary relationships between women would no longer be defined as “too simple” and I would hope that Virginia Woolf would now, on reading texts such as Oranges Are Not The Only Fruits, agree that the inter-female relationships are really “more complicated” than previously. I would argue that for me, this discussion could have been interpreted in two different ways: either to examine how the roles of women as characters in novels, plays or poems have changed with history, or to consider the changing representation of females in the World of Literature, the way female authors and relationships have been represented and how this, along with the characters in their work, is also an ever-evolving story. However, I feel that actually, the two discussions have very similar outcomes in that for both feminine subject matter and female authors, literature is becoming more welcoming and freeing with every passing year. Thus, as literature becomes less discriminatory, and as society changes, it is clear that in the World of Literature women are ever more prominent, indeed, they are almost becoming as prominent as men.

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