Female Characters in literature developed over the years.
Throughout the history of literature, women have been portrayed in different ways ranging from being ruthless, hopeless, weak, and motherly. The most common portrayal in the earlier literary works was that of nearly being subservient to the superior gender or as objects of desire. The roles of women were inferior especially in their marriages since their main duties were centered on the home. Literature gave the picture that women were expected to fulfill their domestic duties that included cooking, washing, cleaning the household and caring for the children. She was given the responsibilities of dealing with a household, where she almost always had children to care for (Kalu, 40).
They are given the strength and knowledge to do this as it was passed down from the older generation. Their knowledge made them able to fulfill marital duties and to satisfy their husbands. This, in turn, brought satisfaction to some married women. Literature has since then developed from this ancient trend of women representation and is now portraying an equal role between genders. Portrayal and representation of women in the development of literature have risen from that of being subservient to a level where they are equal to men.
In the earlier novels before the medieval period women, we portrayed as subject of desire and people who were subservient to the “superior” gender (Ramanamma, 56). For example in Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic the “Blade Runner”, she developed a story that represents women as being helpless and meek and always in need of a strong and handsome hero. They need the men to come and save them from femme fatale who is often sexy, strong, and deadly (Ofek, 105).
Rachel in the book is the perfect image of a femme fatale from the representation of her dark hair down to her dark lipstick. Even though she is tough and hardened enough to survive the severe environmental problems, she is tender and vulnerable enough to express pain and grieve without a man. In addition, during the romantic period, novels were written with a woman in society being stereotyped, oppressed and given no respect compared to their male counterparts.
On the contrary actions and feelings that were considered to be natural for a man started receiving criticism when reciprocated in a woman. This was so especially when it had to deal with sexual desires. Writers such as William Blake and William Wordsworth commented on the role of women in their poems where the oppression placed on the women characters by the conventions of society brought demise to the society (Kalu, 45). The question raised in the poems is whether the women in the poems are victims of the cruelty of the world’s thinking. They also ask whether the women were sinners and they are being punished for being women with improper attitudes towards sex.
Gothic novels presented women as either evil or victims of male chauvinism. The gothic period was an increasingly popular period for feminist studies. Writers were showing contrasts in society at the time and the expectations that women had during that time. They created women characters in the pre-industrial times as subservient to men (Schakel and Jack, 56). During this period, they were expected to marry when they were young and only bare children. Women during this period only cared for their husbands and supported their family additionally the society denied them rights (Kalu, 50).
They were denied the right to vote and to own property. They were thus depicted as the innocently silent and supportive backbone behind patriarchal society. It is evident that during this period female characters in the novels often were categorized into two characters i.e. innocent victims, subservient to the always strong and powerful male characters, or the dangerous and shameless predators. Gothic female characters were therefore innocent, helpless maiden, passive, vulnerable, dependent and weak (Ofek, 130). This represents the stereotypical females in Gothic novels.
On the other hand, a common theme in gothic novels was for feeble female characters to feel sympathy for the villain. For example in characters, Lucy in Dracula, Elizabeth in Frankenstein and Ophelia in Hamlet are the perfect examples of Gothic characters. It is sad that they are usually innocent females ending at tragic death like that of Ophelia who untimely killed herself. This similar incident is seen in another of Shakespeare’s women called Lady Macbeth. Although she is in this case not fitting in the category of helpless maiden stereotype.
Macbeth is an example of a female figure prominent in Gothic literature it depicts a change in attitude and women have developed the strong, dominating and powerful predator (Ramanamma, 70). She is portrayed as ambitious, destructive and offers sexual threat. She is enthralled by a dangerous ambition that makes her threaten to kill her own children. Another example of a Gothic female character is the vampires in “Dracula” (Kalu, 53). They are depicted by Stoker s deviants and sexually aggressive beings that are out to undermine the foundations of man.
Additionally, in the Greco-Roman period, society was a very patriarchal society. It is represented by writers through their myths in classical mythology. The portrayal of women’s role during this period is very different than the roles women play in today’s society. The roles represented in the novels here are similar to those of women in the past. This can be seen from the attributes of Greco-Roman female gods and the roles of women in mythical narratives. It is therefore eminent that when the roles of women in the myths are compared to those roles of women in today’s society we notice that the roles have many differences and few similarities. This is seen and reflected from the attributes of the female gods. For an example of the fourteen main Olympian Deities, only six of them were women i.e. Hera, Demeter, Artemis, Aphrodite, Athena and Hestia (Kalu, 54).
In classical mythology, Hera, Demeter, and Aphrodite were used to portray the role of women in Greco Roman society. The best role of women is portrayed by Hera the Olympian Deity in Greek Mythology. She is the goddess of marriage, childbirth, and consort of Zeus. While staying at home, she presides over the family all day during which her husband goes around making love with other beautiful women in Greece. This scenario indicates that in Greco-Roman society women would stay at home to make meals, watch over their children, weave and clean the house.
This is similar to the roles of women in the early years until the mid 20th century. On the contrary, it is different than the roles of women portrayed by writers in today’s society. Writers in today’s society no longer portray women as expected to stay at home and watch over the house and home. Most women in the novels have jobs and share the housework and cooking with their husbands (Kalu, 90). On the contrary, if a woman finds out today that her husband is cheating on them, they will either walk away from the relationship or will find for themselves another man.
By nineteenth-century women were still valued very little by society as represented by writers. They were still treated as extremely negative and were expected to stay home and fulfill domestic duties (Schakel and Jack, 75). Literary writers of this time embodied and mirrored the social issues of women in society. For example, Henrik Ibsen used Nora Helmer in A Doll House to portray the negative treatment of all women in society during this period. It is eminent that women characters throughout American literature also reflect the same conflicts and attitudes of Nora in A Doll House by Ibsen’s play (Ofek, 150).
Over countless years through literary history, man and woman have realized that they must come together in order to survive. Writers are presenting this in the novels solely for continuation of race through procreation. It is also portrayed through unison in matrimony (Schakel and Jack, 106). Authors find it necessary to bring these two in a way that they have found it an impediment to spending their lives in each other’s midst.
Over several years and towards modernity, we have not only seen the evolution of these relationships, but we have also witnessed the transformation of roles each gender plays in everyday life. One such period of representation include novels written in the medieval period. Many of these roles evolving have occurred during the period, for example, Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” including Arthurian Legends (Ramanamma, 91). The two present women and their treatment by the opposite gender in a way uncommon to earlier writings.
Portrayal and representation of women in the development of literature have risen from that of being subservient to a level where they are equal to men. Throughout the history of literature, women have been portrayed in different ways ranging from being ruthless, hopeless, weak, and motherly. The most common portrayal in the earlier literary works was that of nearly being subservient to the superior gender or as objects of desire. The roles of women were inferior especially in their marriages since their main duties were centered on the home. Literature gave the picture that women were expected to fulfill their domestic duties that included cooking, washing, cleaning the household and caring for the children. She was given the responsibilities of dealing with a household, where she almost always had children to care for.
They are given the strength and knowledge to do this as it was passed down from the older generation. Their knowledge made them able to fulfill marital duties and to satisfy their husbands. This, in turn, brought satisfaction to some married women. Women during the Gothic period only cared for their husbands and supported their family. Similarly, the society denied them rights as portrayed in gothic novels. They were denied the right to vote and to own property. Finally, during the romantic period actions and feelings that were considered to be natural for a man started receiving criticism when reciprocated in a woman. Over several years and towards modernity, we have not only seen the evolution of these relationships, but we have also witnessed the transformation of roles each gender plays in everyday life.
Ofek, Galia. Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture. Ashgate Publishing,
Ltd., 2009. 105, 130 & 150
Ramanamma, Marti. Literature and Women Development. Anmol Publications PVT. LTD.,
- 56, 70 & 91
Kalu, Anthonia. Women, Literature, and Development in Africa. Africa World Press, 2001. 40.
45, 50, 53, 54 & 90
Schakel, Peter., and Jack, Ridl. Approaching Literature. Ed. 2. Bedford/ St. Martin’s Publisher.
- 56, 75 and 106
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