The Portrayal Of Women In The American Literary Canon

1639 words - 7 pages

Literature is not simply a reflection of society; it is in actuality much more powerful. Literature draws upon society and creates its own meanings and images. It possesses the power to either nourish or discourage societal values and ideals. Hence, stereotypical views on gender relations in society are reinforced by literary depictions of men and women. The American literary canon is a collection of books that are widely accepted as influential in shaping Western culture. Stereotypes are evident throughout these texts, and often serve to justify the continuance of traditional roles. More specifically, women seem to be the target of cataloguing and other negative depictions. Classic ...view middle of the document...

The lack of female protagonists forces women to read about and connect with only male characters and their experiences. In doing so, women are prompted to share in the protagonist’s negative outlook towards female characters. Consequently, women are continually not only looked at as the enemy, but are impelled to view themselves that way as well.
Educated female characters repeatedly express negative characteristics throughout the American literary canon. Mary-Anne Ferguson states in Images of Women in Literature that a highly educated woman is typically ridiculed or depicted as highly unattractive (Ferguson 15). American authors often portray intelligent women as displeasing to men and lacking in social skills. Educated female characters also become stigmatized because they pursue education rather than traditional roles, such as marriage. Female readers may be encouraged to feel ashamed of doing well in school, in fear of being labeled as socially awkward or unattractive. The stigma placed on intelligent female literary characters advocates the idea that women should not seek higher education. Women are pressured to continue traditional gender roles rather than acquire knowledge and subsequently abandon their dependent position in society.
Independent female characters in are often depicted as erratic and abnormal in American literature. Mary-Anne Ferguson in Images of Women in Literature states that female characters that are unmarried or alone are meant to be viewed in a condescending way (Ferguson 342). The disdainful view of single women in literature justifies the continuance of traditional female roles. Independent women continue to be regarded as socially deviant, rather than being encouraged to be self-sufficient. Ferguson further states, “Both in life and literature, women without men are generally considered odd, pitiable, or laughable…” (Ferguson 341). For example, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the character Miss Watson is a single woman living with her sister. Miss Watson is portrayed as an outsider, characterized as rigid and dejected. This portrayal emphasizes the idea that unmarried women do not fit into societal standards of normalcy. Consequently, pursuing marriage continues to be viewed as a way for women to conform to societal standards.
The image of women as “dutiful housewives” is emphasized in many classic American texts. In literature, the main concepts of what make a good wife are submission, inferiority and a willingness to please. Although these ideas were the norm in society at that time, literary depictions inadvertently promote the continuance of female stereotypes. For example, American author Mark Twain often depicted female characters in domestic roles. In Feminist Engagements: Forays into American Literature and Culture, Shelley Fishkin ascertains that like all male authors at that time, Mark Twain often portrayed women as the “angel of the house,” who cooked,...

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