Chinese Malaysian, American Literature at Osaka University, Japan.
Traditional Female Roles in Literature: An Introduction
In the earliest works of literature, the basic roles of females are frequently determined through their relation to men. The submissive ones were rewarded while the rebellious ones were punished. Mothers and prizes are characters who are created in order to serve men; Jezebels, old witches and amazons are some kinds of demons who will threaten the male dominancy; old witches and Biddies belong to those who have lost value in the male market, and thus, they are either defeated or isolated at the end of a story. A clearer description of each category is shown below.
Mothers and Prizes:
- In literature, female characters are often seen as types of possessions to be won (prize) and then used according to their purpose, such as in the procreation of children (mother). For instance, in Looking Backward, women who are both wives and mothers are given higher ranks in the female society. Interestingly, in the feminist novel The Handmaid Tale, these roles of women has been reversed as men become worth nothing “except for ten second’s worth of half babies. A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women” (130-131).
Angels and Jezebels:
- “Angels are quite frequently virgins or very virtuous but gentle married women and mothers” (6). Their important attributes are submissiveness to the appropriate male authority (husband/father); their main role is to support the hero emotionally and reform or domesticate him if necessary. Losing physical virginity or sacrificing oneself is generally perceived as the price to domesticate the hero.
- The name of Jezebels is derived from the name of the biblical queen, a name that has “not only become a synonym for a prostitute but also for an amoral manipulative female” (7). They are female characters who use their sexual attractiveness to gain financial support or to achieve their wish for revenge. The lack of maternal feelings is their common characteristic, thus they are usually punished or reformed in the end due to this negative preference. Lady Macbeth is an example of a Jezebel.
- Women who refuse to accept male authority and who takes control of men in literature. Since they were regarded as “some kind of hybrids or half-male creatures,” their fictional image is often negative (8). Because they are perceived as examples of “unnatural womanhood”, they too often end up being punished or dying in a story (8). Generally, their loss of virginity symbolizes their submission to male dominancy. An example of this is Dickens’ Mrs. Joe Gargery.
Old witches, Biddies, and Wise Women:
- In literature, an old witch is normally an unattractive and authoritative older mother figure who is feared or hated. Similar to Jezebels and amazons, the old witches’ fate in literature is very often either “reformation by penance or staying defeated and alone” (9). The classical example for this is Dickens’ Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.
- Biddies are older women who always behave in a repellent manner. The best example is the drink-sodden midwife, Mrs. Gamp, who is listed by the Telegraph as one of Charles Dickens’s best grotesques characters. Also, Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet is an excellent example of biddy.
- Wise Women are those who communicate with gods in order to help and advise the hero in legends. This character is rarely found in the end and beginning of twentieth century literature due to the phallocentric social system in that era.
Over the centuries, the basic roles as such have not changed much. However, with the rise of feminism, some of the female roles that were traditionally viewed as negative have been re-evaluated in a positive light. This is because more people have come to understand that “a woman is much more than a single role can define”, that the lines between the roles have become blurred (106). Thus, in modern literature, female characters have become representative of more than one role, sometimes even in a paradoxical manner. From this aspect, studying literature is a good way to understand the changes in relationships between men and women, especially the changes in the identities of women, in each historical moment. “It is not only reality that influences literature but that literature too influences our lives and our perception of the world”—knowledge of the traditional female roles in literature can cause as a crucial key for us to rethink ourselves as liberal and modern feminists (107).
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. London: Vintage, 1996. Print.
Collin, Robin. “Sarah Gamp: My favourite Charles Dickens character.” The Telegraphy. 14 Feb. 2012.
Vukadinovic, Jelena. Role of Women in Utopian and Dystopian Novels. Germany: GRIN Verlag, 2009. Print.
Text © Lay Sion Ng
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