Gender Images in Literature
Of Angels, Monsters and Departing Women
Since time immemorial, Western literature has been characterised by stereotypical notions of gender. Myths and fairy tales, classical and modern literature are teeming with brave courageous heroes and long-suffering female figures. What is going on here and what is the negotiation actually about?
By Nicole Seifert
At a time when we are striving to overcome binary notions of gender, old role clichés continue to linger, not least in the form of canonised literature. That makes it all the more important to reflect on the stories this literature tells us about gender.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir characterised the cultural difference between men and women as being that men conquer and women become their prisoners. Men go out into the world to explore, invent and create, while women stay at home and look after the children. American literary studies scholar Maria Tatar has found evidence of these gender-based narrative patterns in myths, sagas and fairy tales. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and their sisters are imprisoned in castles, gardens or towers, patiently waiting, while the men set out to look for them, fighting and defeating adversaries, and ultimately becoming liberators. Men are rewarded by being allowed to can call women their own.
In ancient Greek myths, too, women are not destined for action, but to wait for the men and bear their children. Danae, Europa and Leda, for example, are impregnated by Zeus – in the form of golden rain, a white bull and a swan – and give birth to powerful, adventurous sons. Andromeda is punished because her mother boasted about her beauty. Chained to a rock, she is forced to languish until heroic Perseus finds her and sets her free. These long-suffering, maltreated women are far more numerous than fully-fledged goddesses such as wise Athena, wild Artemis and beautiful Aphrodite, all deities who embody abstract concepts beyond reproach and – luckily for them – are usually unapproachable.
Monsters or Angels?The autonomous hero, proving his mettle in adventures and emerging victorious, and the socially bound, long-suffering, modest heroine – these stereotypical notions of gender have characterised Western stories since time immemorial; Maria Tatar calls them their “standard narrative option.” In nineteenth-century novels, female figures were often characterised either as monsters or as angels. Either they are submissive, with a pure, impeccable character, or they are sensual, rebellious and uncontrollable – highly undesirable qualities in a Victorian daughter or wife.
Even the heroines of modern classics (written by men), such as Anna Karenina, Effi Briest, Emma Bovary, or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, fit into the pattern of this standard narrative option. Another interesting aspect here is who is traditionally blamed for what happens, namely women and their ideas and desires, which are presented as presumptuous. This is particularly conspicuous in Effi Briest. Before her premature death, sick and rejected by her family, it is she whom society considers an adulteress and thus to blame for all that ensues – regardless of the question of how she came to be in that situation and how society applies double standards to men and women, and that this is precisely what contributes to her misfortune. This is a gender-biased narrative, reproducing time and again the superiority of one gender and the alleged presumptuousness of the other.
Could Things Be Different?Once in a while there are other narrative patterns and female figures, even in classics written by men, but they are an exception. Henrik Ibsen’s protagonist Nora, for example, leaves her husband and children at the end of A Doll’s House after realising that all her life, she has been little more than a plaything for the men in her life – making her the epitome of women’s emancipation in 1900.
Women authors, on the other hand, have always put up resistance, telling their side of the story. Why should they, in the words of Rebecca Solnit, put up with being given “a single story line about what makes a good life, even though not a few who follow that story line have bad lives“? In their novels, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters painted nuanced pictures of female insubordination, which, above all, were about the limits of what was possible for women. And these authors also put a different twist on the angel-monster opposition of their male colleagues’ literature. For example, the rage they feel towards the misogynist world where women writers and their female protagonists are forced to live is reflected in the recurring figure of the “madwoman in the attic“ – an allusion to Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. So literature also comments on earlier literature, as it has always done, referring to neglected perspectives and endeavouring to supplement them. In Wide Sargasso Sea, for example, Jean Rhys picks up on the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, telling the story of the madwoman’s life in the attic from Bertha’s own perspective.
How Women Are Made InvisibleTime and again, women writers in Western literature write about how, in one way or another, they do not participate in the world. Inclusion and exclusion, flight and imprisonment are traditional topoi of women’s writing. From Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Marlen Haushofer, from Sylvia Plath to Ingeborg Bachmann, women writers describe women who have been silenced or who feel like strangers in their own lives, or they tell of how they disappear altogether. This motif has by no means been consigned to history, appearing in variations to this day. Women writers have also made sure that mythical heroines are given their own voice and perspective. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra is a first-person narrative of the title figure on the day of her death. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls lets us hear the voice of Briseis, the prisoner who is about to be given to Achilles as a trophy. And in Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, Penelope and the twelve “maids”, enslaved women, tell us about the brutal patriarchal society in Ithaca.
Yet autonomous female literary figures had and still have a tough time of it, provoking hostility and criticism. They are too unusual in a culture that presents women either as a role model (passive and altruistic) or as a cautionary example (egotistical and mad). When the actress envisaged for the lead rule in the German premiere of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House in 1880 refused to play a woman who leaves her husband and children, Ibsen accepted the challenge of rewriting the ending so as not to put the performance at risk. In the new ending, Nora looks at her sleeping children and is no longer able to leave. Thus, she has once again become a woman who fulfils patriarchal wishes and stereotypes. At that time, Germany, unlike some neighbouring countries, was not yet ready for the autonomous, discerning woman that Ibsen had actually created. As yet, there was no breathing space between angel and monster, no room for the woman’s perspective. The fact that a woman cannot leave her children is due to circumstance rather than individual choice.
Even today, works by women writers featuring autonomous female figures who go their own way, regardless of the consequences, are given scathing reviews, particularly by men, clearly indicating that much more is involved than purely aesthetic criteria. In literature, as in literary criticism, the negotiation is about something else as well, namely the question of who is or is not allowed to do what and what punishment is appropriate. The question of which liberties a woman should have. And which she should not.
SourcesSimone de Beauvoir, Das andere Geschlecht, Reinbek: Rowohlt 2018 (1949)
Sandra M. Gilbert und Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, New Haven und London: Yale University Press 1984, pp. 89–92
Rebecca Solnit, Die Mutter aller Fragen, Munich: btb 2019
Maria Tatar, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, London: W.W. Norton & Company 2021
Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror, Über das inszenierte Ich, Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer 2019