Women in "canon" literature

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Women in "canon" literature

Post by reboot on Sat Jul 11, 2015 8:48 am

The Atlantic just published this article about how in the English literary "canon" (I quibble with the concept of a canon) there is only one book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks, where the main female character is concerned with anything other than love, marriage and kids.

I have been wracking my brain to think of other "literary" books where the female protagonist's story arc is not dictated by love/marriage/kids and coming up blank. Anyone else able to come up with something (or something other than the book reviewed at the end of the article)?
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by litterature on Sat Jul 11, 2015 9:57 am

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Zazie dans le métro, most of Bertolt Brecht's female characters.

I think stories where female characters aren't moved by the family as an institution (I'd say love as a subject matter is something else, much more valid and not sexist per se - in fact female desire is a subject artistic works tend to avoid, sadly) aren't that hard to come by, but in these stories females are often depicted as just a fleeting object which disappears putting things in motion, which isn't much better.

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Wondering on Sat Jul 11, 2015 1:22 pm

So, we're looking for a female protagonist, in canon, and she has to be motivated by something other than love, marriage, or having kids? I'd object to saying she can't be motivated by something having to do with family, such as kids already in existence.

I would propose Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Kate from Taming of the Shrew. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Anne in the first Anne of Green Gables. This depends on how broadly you're defining canon, of course.

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by reboot on Sat Jul 11, 2015 8:33 pm

Wondering wrote:So, we're looking for a female protagonist, in canon, and she has to be motivated by something other than love, marriage, or having kids? I'd object to saying she can't be motivated by something having to do with family, such as kids already in existence.

I would propose Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Kate from Taming of the Shrew. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Anne in the first Anne of Green Gables. This depends on how broadly you're defining canon, of course.

Ah yes, "What is canon" is the biggest part of my quibble with the concept of a canon Smile

I just noticed that aside from Brecht and Kate from Taming of the Shrew, the exceptions listed are girls, not adult women. And in the two adult examples are the women protagonists/main characters or part of an ensemble? I do not remember my Brecht well enough to comment
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Wondering on Sat Jul 11, 2015 8:57 pm

I think you could count Anne from the Green Gables series into adulthood. Yeah, she marries Gilbert, and there's romance/proposals in and out of the books, but I wouldn't really count it as motivation. But that series is probably the farthest stretch for canon of the ones I mentioned.

I must admit I've never read any Virginia Wolfe. Are her women characters all motivated by love, marriage, or kids? I don't think the wives in The Merry Wives of Windsor are, but I guess Falstaff is really the protagonist of that play, despite its name.

I've actually been ruminating about this all day. And will likely continue to do so! Smile

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Wondering on Sat Jul 11, 2015 8:59 pm

Oh, I just thought of Clytemnestra. She's motivated by vengeance for the murder of her child, but not having kids, and she gets a whole play.

And the women of Lysistrata are motivated by stopping a war, even though their action is all about sex.

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Enail on Sat Jul 11, 2015 9:20 pm

How about Antigone? Motivated by the duty of the living to bury the dead.
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by reboot on Sat Jul 11, 2015 9:30 pm

OK, so we have ancient Greek plays which are often tragedies, aside from Lysistrata and a couple of Shakespeare examples, so it kind of feels like women were written to have motivations other than sex/love, marriage or kids/family if they were written for the stage.

How about the first novel, Moll Flanders? She married a couple of times but her motivations are more picaresque/financial and the marriages are how she advances. Given the time it was the main way women gained financial power.
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Enail on Sat Jul 11, 2015 9:35 pm

Got to object to Moll Flanders being called the first novel. Tale of Genji, represent!
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Wondering on Sun Jul 12, 2015 1:03 am

You know, I thought of Antigone, but then thought that Creon was really the protagonist, even though it's named for Antigone. I thought of Medea, too, but she seems very much motivated by being jilted.

Forgot about Moll Flanders. I'm not a fan of picaresque novels, so I'm guessing I blocked it from my memory. Smile

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by eselle28 on Sun Jul 12, 2015 1:13 am

Is Agatha Christie canon? Miss Marple is motivated by none of love, sex, or family.

I also join Wondering in questioning whether the welfare of existing children is quite the same thing as a desire for love, marriage or having children. There are quite a lot of even early male protagonists who are motivated by the desire to raise their children well or protect them.
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by reboot on Sun Jul 12, 2015 1:36 am

But with male protagonists was it their only or primary motivation?

I would put Miss Marple as canon, but I feel my literature profs would beg to differ
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by eselle28 on Sun Jul 12, 2015 4:32 pm

reboot wrote:But with male protagonists was it their only or primary motivation?

Silas Marner? That's assuming adopted children and wards count, and I'd say they should. On a less positive note, I think Prospero and Willy Loman could at least be argued to be primarily motivated by parenthood, even though neither of them were particularly good examples of parenting.

That's not to deny that it's not a theme that has been primarily aligned with female main characters, though. Ultimately this is quibbling, and I think the general point of the article is true.

I would put Miss Marple as canon, but I feel my literature profs would beg to differ

Agatha Christie was on my AP English list, but the book listed wasn't actually a Miss Marple one. Still, I think the Miss Marple books be at least on the edge of canon, which I think has been sort of easing toward incorporating more works that might have been classified as genre. Admittedly, she's a rarity, and still probably is even in more modern literature. I mean, even in universe, she's successful in part because people don't take her all that seriously.
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by fakely mctest on Wed Jul 15, 2015 5:03 pm

So I think what the author of the article doesn't really wrestle with at all is the fact that, until very recently, marriage for women = financial stability. So yes there are a lot of books in the canon that feature marriage because they are realistic depictions of how a woman could avoid a life of privation. The cherry on top of that basic fact of life is when these marriages are actual love matches.

With that in mind, I'd put forward The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart is explicitly not looking for love, and in fact rejects love in a way -- although Seldon's regard seems to come with a lot of drawbacks. The tragedy of The House of Mirth is that she cannot make herself wholly mercenary OR wholly romantic, which I think is Wharton's extremely smart way of emphasizing the limitations in the lives of women at the time.

Off the top of my head:

The governess in The Turn of the Screw
Edna Pontellier in The Awakening -- the whole point of The Awakening is that Edna is rejecting marriage and motherhood at a time when to do so was basically impossible.
Marion Halcombe from The Woman in White
Honestly, even Daisy and Jordan from The Great Gatsby aren't really after love and marriage and babies (what baby?!), they want fun and meaningless intrigue and financial stability.
If Shirley Jackson is part of the canon then basically all of her female characters have non-domestic motivations.

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by eselle28 on Wed Jul 15, 2015 5:30 pm

Along fakely's line of thought, what about Nora from A Doll's House? Her circumstances are wrapped up tightly in her family, but I'd say that her primary objective for most of the play is concealing the fact that she committed forgery rather than any of her relationships in and of themselves.



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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by fakely mctest on Wed Jul 15, 2015 6:14 pm

eselle28 wrote:Along fakely's line of thought, what about Nora from A Doll's House? Her circumstances are wrapped up tightly in her family, but I'd say that her primary objective for most of the play is concealing the fact that she committed forgery rather than any of her relationships in and of themselves.

Absolutely!  Ibsen is full of really fascinating, fully-realized female characters.  Hedda Gabler as well.  I love her so much. Shiny/thrilled

Also, on reading the article again, a few things jumped out at me:

While the male characters of literature built countries, waged wars, and traveled while smoking plenty of illicit substances, the women were utterly boring.

This is...really striking as basic sexism 101.  I think Jane Austen pretty famously (if delicately) skewered it: "What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?"

Part of why I find the canon so unhelpful is that what constitutes an "important" book has been narrowly defined for so long that it's going to be extremely hard to open it up.  Like it's this raggedy old house that we're trying to make modern by adding on weird wings and other additions (Oh, just put in some Toni Morrison and some Langston Hughes and call it a day).  When really, if we want to improve the way we think about literature and what we officially recognize as culturally valuable, we're better off tearing the whole thing down and redrawing the plans.

But if that doesn't happen there's always going to be a contingent of people who are like: "this book doesn't deal with anything important like nation building/war/rebellious travelling" therefore it's boring and worthless.  And the fact is that those things are masculine-coded because, for a long time and even still, women weren't allowed/didn't have the financial independence required to participate.  The article's author is perpetuating the really tired idea that traditionally masculine values are good and traditionally feminine values are boring/bad.

The assigned, award-winning, cannon-qualified books about women were about women I didn't want to be.

This is an odd way to assign value and quality.  I'm relatively sure no one truly wants to be Captain Ahab and yet Moby Dick: still a classic and maybe the closest thing we have to the Great American Novel.

Jane Eyre was too blinded by her love for Mr. Rochester

No.  Wait.  What?  Admittedly the St. John part of Jane Eyre is not my favorite because he's such an awful prig, but Jane actually leaves Rochester after she finds out about his wife in the attic.  That is the opposite of being blinded by love.  In fact there's been a ton of ink spilled about the ending to Jane Eyre and how it's only possible for Jane and Rochester to have a marriage of equals when he's been physically disempowered because it brings him closer to the level that Jane (and many, many women) were obliged to occupy in society at the time.

They wanted to whine for 300 pages about a man who didn't want to be with them.

Ew.  Seriously.  Offensively reductivist, untrue, and sexist.

Like many young adults, I didn't necessarily want stable. I wanted to drive On The Road and stop off in small towns and drink more than was probably appropriate. I wanted to question who I was and be my own Catcher in the Rye.

Here is where I get off this article.  On the Road was one of the most staggeringly sexist books I've ever read.  It's also filled with horrible people who don't seem to particularly like each other except as targets for vague speechifying.  Like there is an actual part of On the Road where the narrator marries a woman in Mexico.  She has a young son and she and the son are field laborers.  The narrator tries to help them but he's not good at laboring so he gives up.  There's a scene when he's about to blow town where she brings him breakfast and he's like, "I'll totally send for you once I get back to NYC" and his thinking is that they both know that won't happen.  And I was like: what the actual fuck she doesn't know that, you selfish douche.  And then he leaves her with the dirty breakfast dishes and peaces out.  I swear that was the closest I ever came to setting a book on fire.

Ahem.

So I will add Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to the list.

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by reboot on Wed Jul 15, 2015 8:07 pm

On the Road started my lasting hate of Kerouac for that exact reason. That man was a douche.
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Wondering on Wed Jul 15, 2015 8:31 pm

fakely mctest wrote:And the fact is that those things are masculine-coded because, for a long time and even still, women weren't allowed/didn't have the financial independence required to participate. The article's author is perpetuating the really tired idea that traditionally masculine values are good and traditionally feminine values are boring/bad.

Yes, that is how I felt about the article, but didn't have the energy to really get into. So, I agree with all you said about it, especially the parts about Jane Eyre.

It's like the problem I have with Peter Jackson's Arwen. I mean, I get he wanted to give her more to do on screen and he conflated her with Glorfindel to do that, but I have a major problem with him making her another Eowyn. Because a) Eowyn was supposed to be unique, and b) why is it women are only considered strong if they're fighting or have fighting magic (Arwen didn't raise the river against the Nazgul, either. Elrond and Gandalf did that)? Ugh, yuck.

I will say, though, I think there is value in looking for female protagonists, especially in more modern works of contemporary settings where marriage isn't their only viable option, who have motivations beyond marriage, love, and mothering.

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by eselle28 on Wed Jul 15, 2015 8:33 pm

I thought of another. Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons dangereuses is motivated by revenge and a desire for a vicious sort of amusement. Relationships and marriage play heavily into her plans, but she doesn't want them for herself. She just wants to use them to make others suffer.

reboot wrote:On the Road started my lasting hate of Kerouac for that exact reason. That man was a douche.

I wonder if having some time and distance from some of the mid-20th century works will eventually give rise to some reevaluation of what's most important, or at least reconsideration of whether the values expressed by those works still ring true today. A lot of things written around that time either hit me wrong the first time I encountered them or were enjoyable but seem very self-centered today. I could see maybe a few of them slipping out of "canon" (to the extent we continue using it) in the next couple decades and a couple more being taught in a more critical way.

I would say it's generational, but the author of the piece who admires the book is fairly young, so perhaps it's not.
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Wondering on Wed Jul 15, 2015 8:37 pm

eselle28 wrote:I thought of another. Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons dangereuses is motivated by revenge and a desire for a vicious sort of amusement. Relationships and marriage play heavily into her plans, but she doesn't want them for herself. She just wants to use them to make others suffer.

Is she the protagonist? I've never read the book, but in the three movie versions of it that I've seen, Valmont is always portrayed as the protagonist.

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by eselle28 on Wed Jul 15, 2015 8:59 pm

Wondering wrote:
eselle28 wrote:I thought of another. Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons dangereuses is motivated by revenge and a desire for a vicious sort of amusement. Relationships and marriage play heavily into her plans, but she doesn't want them for herself. She just wants to use them to make others suffer.

Is she the protagonist? I've never read the book, but in the three movie versions of it that I've seen, Valmont is always portrayed as the protagonist.

The story is the same. She sets the events in motion; he gets the character growth in the end.

The book is epistolary, though. It makes her writing letters and dropping hints and spreading gossip a lot more prominent than it is on screen, where Valmont's more active scenes are a lot more camera-friendly. It also means that we spend as much time either in her head or in the heads of people trying to communicate with her as we do for Valmont. I'd say there's at least an argument they're co-protagonists and that it's her tragedy and his redemption story. I can see the argument that she's she's an antagonist though, too.
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by Wondering on Wed Jul 15, 2015 9:05 pm

Got it. That actually makes it sound more like something I'd want to read than the impression I got from the movies.

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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by reboot on Wed Jul 15, 2015 9:09 pm

Wondering wrote:Got it. That actually makes it sound more like something I'd want to read than the impression I got from the movies.
Me too!
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by eselle28 on Wed Jul 15, 2015 9:29 pm

Uh, as a warning, it's interesting until the very last few pages. Basically, in addition to the tragedy that befalls her in the movie versions, she's given an extra dose of misfortune that has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot. SPOILER: In addition to being publicly exposed for her manipulations, she then flees to the country and contracts smallpox. She lives, but with significant after-effects, and there's this nasty bit about her wearing her soul on her face. It struck me as gratuitous in a way that sometimes gets reserved for very strong but very unlikable female characters.
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Re: Women in "canon" literature

Post by fakely mctest on Wed Jul 15, 2015 10:45 pm

eselle28 wrote:
reboot wrote:On the Road started my lasting hate of Kerouac for that exact reason. That man was a douche.

I wonder if having some time and distance from some of the mid-20th century works will eventually give rise to some reevaluation of what's most important, or at least reconsideration of whether the values expressed by those works still ring true today. A lot of things written around that time either hit me wrong the first time I encountered them or were enjoyable but seem very self-centered today. I could see maybe a few of them slipping out of "canon" (to the extent we continue using it) in the next couple decades and a couple more being taught in a more critical way.

I would say it's generational, but the author of the piece who admires the book is fairly young, so perhaps it's not.

I think the bolded bit is absolutely the case.  As a former English lit student, daughter of two English lit majors, I feel pretty confident in saying that there is definitely a hierarchy of works that also exists on a timeline.  The Canon = the older stuff that's stood the test of time (so, maybe up to the 1940s-1950s at this point?) and then there's "modern literature" which is basically contemporary for values of contemporary that cover the past 20 years or so.  So there's always this odd collection of stuff that falls between the two.  For example: when I was in college we didn't really read any Vonnegut in my program, but my parents did when they were doing contemporary lit courses during their college years.

I have also heard, much to my delight, that James Joyce, that tiresome bore, has become rather unfashionable.  Like there are academics who genuinely think whatever a person might glean in going through his stuff is just...not worth the slog.

My favorite Kerouac burn of all time came from my favorite poet of all time, Frank O'Hara.  The two men traveled in the same NYC literary circles but HATED each other.  As the story goes, Kerouac came to one of O'Hara's poetry readings to heckle him:

Kerouac: You're ruining American poetry, O'Hara.
O'Hara: That's more than you ever did for it.

Honestly, far from it being any sort of generational statement, the author of the piece struck me as working that whole "cool girl/just one of the guys" angle pretty hard, whether she realizes it or not.  I mean, I guess I feel like she's thisclose to saying that we should all just read some Burroughs and think about the universe, you know?

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