Understanding the power of women in literature

Women have always played an important, and vital role in novels. They not only feature as characters, but are the protagonists, narrators, and sufferers of domestic disquiet; quite often the targets of violence. It is oxymoron that with many a female monarch ruling ex-cathedra, society persisted in accepting patriarchal values as its normal. It is a misguided reading approach to place modern societal values on a period novel, and compare it with what the reader has come to perceive as acceptable behaviour. Society, and its way of life just like language, changes with the passing of each decade. What was normal behaviour in the past has become unacceptable to current generations. 

It is therefore important to resist reading a novel that plots lives of a different era with our twenty-first century eyes. The danger of doing so, is settling in an unquestioning seat of acceptance that our modern values are superior. In doing so, the opportunity for a wider analytical approach of the text may be missed. In other words, objectivity becomes subjective criticism of another era, neglecting the need to understand the values of the yesteryear. It must be borne in mind that values have time-depth. They are dictated by the generations that create them and change with the passing of time. Migration, in-migration, gender equality issues, and new methods of communication, contribute to an ever-evolving world. Events from the other side of the globe are transmitted with minutes of their happening, immediately affecting our way of thinking about our existence. Au contraire, in Wuthering Heights the trip to Thrushcross Grange took hours, and sometimes it was an impossible journey. Contemporary issues of gender equality may be contrasted with current approaches to present a chasm in society’s values. Victorian novels portray a patriarchal society, where women appeared servile to the male dominion. But were they? 

Nelly, despite her societal status, had more freedom than most of the males in Wuthering Heights (Brontë, 2009). She was present in most conversations, and was the narrator of events that weaved the plot. Catherine was the driving force behind Heathcliff, and used Edgar for her gains. Isabella left Heathcliff to build her own life, after years of being mistreated by him. Cathy educated and developed Hareton prior to sharing a life with him. Is that the portrayal of an enslaved or of a powerful and free-thinking woman? If literary feminist criticism (different to the current movement ideology) were to inform our thinking, then the female literary creators of the era, were not just mere recorders of feminine submission. They penned their art with hope for explicit equality, and inspiration for emancipation from gender constraints. In other words, they viewed their prose as a dynamic force of human evolution. 

James Joyce in his novel Dubliners (2000) discusses society, and how women affected it. In ‘Eveline’ we meet a young woman who struggles to keep a household together after her mother dies. She lived in a society where women had to sacrifice their earthly life, in hope of a better one after death. But who was the architect of such morality? Eveline decides in the outcome of her relationship, when she decides against migration with her fiancé, choosing instead to stay at home. In ‘A Painful Case,’ the story shows us the inability of the two male characters to understand Mrs Sinico. Here, it was the female character, who used alcohol as an escapism, perhaps from the men she was surrounded by. 

The growth of women in society spans over a long period, and will continue to change. Our modern thinking is shaped by the comparisons we make with values from the past. Moreover, as cultures intertwine through the opportunity to travel and live in places that were once regarded as far away, means that our current values will eventually become antiquated. A novel need be spun on its head to try to seek the writer’s deepest thoughts. The responsibility of the reader is to remain objective in his or her reading, and avoid applying modern views as the yardstick of morality. The reader’s thinking is best informed through evidence found in the text. This will highlight a number of gender struggles that can only be understood through critical questioning and analysis based on close reading.   

If women were the pillars of society in a male dominated world, how have they helped shape society?  


Brontë, E., (2009), Wuthering Heights, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Joyce, J., (2000), Dubliners, Penguin Books, London.

1 comment:

  1. I'm impressed, Conn, well-contructed arguments with many valid points. I'd give you a 1st, no problem!