This past week, after spending a few class periods on the literatures of the world’s three largest religions, we switched gears to focus on a subject that is surprisingly underrepresented in world literature: women. It is only surprising when you consider that about half the population of the world is comprised of females, so one would think that the literature that fills the canon of the world’s great writing would consist of a decent representation of writing by and about women.
The reality is that for the large bulk of human history, women have not been given a voice. They have primarily been treated as the subordinate to men, and therefore, lack access to an education to learn how to write, are not provided the opportunity to publish, or are simply oppressed as objects that only have worth fulfilling roles of child-rearing and home-making.
In fact, recently, in 2011, the writer V.S. Naipaul dismissed women writers as “unequal” to him and expressed his criticism for their “sentimentality.”
As a consequence, out of the pages and pages of text in our very substantial world literature volume, (It’s the kind of book that you dread taking to class because how heavy your backpack becomes and how sore your shoulders get) only a handful of selections in the book are written by female authors.
Not only are the texts of world literature written by women rare, but the depiction of women in world literature is typically not positive.
Traditionally, women fill three different roles in literature: mothers, maidens, or mistresses. For example, Gilgamesh’s Ninsun is a wise and loving mother, Penelope is a loyal and chaste wife to Odysseus. Don Quixote’s revered maiden is the sweet Dulcinea, and Ezinma is the good daughter and maiden in Things Fall Apart. Finally, there are a host of Mistresses, ranging from The Odyssey’s Circe and Calypso to Chekhov’s Anna in “The Lady with the Dog.”
The point is that women in the bulk of world literature, most literature for that matter, are depicted as objects—shallow characters that play roles that are essentially interchangeable parts. They lack characterization, they rarely play centrals roles to plot and theme, and readers are not allowed to glimpse the depth of their perspectives, motivations, and emotions within the action of the story. And, very often women are depicted as manipulative and highly-sexualized.
Of course, these roles are not always negative. In fact, Penelope is a model example of a loyal wife, staying true to her husband even after 20 years of his absence. And Ninsun is the wisest character in the story, passing on her wisdom to Gilgamesh when he reaches a crisis.
However, it is the fact that women across the canon of literature are objectified, filling set pieces in stories that place the male protagonist in the central and most important position. The bulk of literature is comprised of stories about men. Women are just there to nurture, advise, tempt, corrupt, or be possessed by the men.
So, in my world literature course we dedicate block of time to consider texts in which women play central roles, often stories written by women or about women—stories that depict women as subjects, not objects.
The first is Scheherazade, ironically a character in one of the most sexist texts of all literature, The Thousand and One Nights. Yet, Scheherazade is unique among women of ancient world literature.
Scheherazade had read books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by heart, had studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined. She had read and learned.
Scheherazade becomes central to the story, risking her life to save he fellow women and ultimately the kingdom itself. She
convinces the king and the reader that women are not manipulative, disloyal, sexual objects.
The second is Chandara and Mrinmayi from two of Tagore’s short stories, “The Punishment” and “The Conclusion.” Tagore writes these stories in order to present strong, female characters who resist the oppression of their society—one chooses death over dishonor while the other becomes a wife only under her own terms.
Then, we read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and find a woman’s perspective on the oppression of the imposed expectations of women in 19th century American society. Gilman’s cure to her own malaise is to make herself the subject of her own art, to tell her own story. Gilman, a supporter of the women’s movement, gives women a voice.
Finally, we read Egyptian writer Sadawi’s “In Camera,” which tells the story of a girl’s horrible punishment for speaking out in a public sphere. She is beaten and raped for her transgressions. Yet, Sadawi, a woman who devoted her life to exposing the human rights abused of women in the Arab world, gives her female protagonist a voice by putting her situation in the central focus of her visually driven narrative. Hence, the title, “In Camera.”
All of these examples are stories that shift the place of women in literature from roles as objects to characters as subjects, subjects who think, feel, and act as central figures in their own stories. All of these are rare exceptions to the depiction of women in literature.
This act, of studying, the depiction of women in literature also, I hope, reminds my students of another example of women in literature: the New Testament. For when we observe the norms of placing women into objectified roles, then the gospel’s account of women stands out as exceptional in the realm of ancient, world literature. You see, Jesus viewed women as subjects. That is clear. For out of the typically patriarchal cultural of the middle east comes stories of Jesus ministering to harlots, offering his message of love and forgiveness to the woman at the well, healing women of unclean diseases, and including women amongst his closest followers. Jesus’s treatment of women falls under the rare examples of stories of human history in which women are treated as they should be, as humans.