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Literary Theory Essay 2: Feminism

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Introduction

Literary Theory Essay 2: Feminism "Few myths have been more advantageous to the ruling caste than the myth of woman." (Simone de Beauvoir). Explore some of the ways in which Simone de Beauvoir's notion of "the myth of woman" has been taken up by feminist literary critics and offer a feminist deconstruction of that myth as it operates in ONE OR MORE literary texts of your choice. In De Beauvoir's book The Second Sex, the author refers to the notion of "the myth of woman"; a myth, or number of myths, created by man based on fundamental biological and mental differences which lead to the repression of the female sex. She develops this to talk about concepts of woman as "the Other", and the creation of a feminine "mystery"; that is, a subjective ignorance about the nature of femininity on the part of Man, which He interprets as an objective truth, asserting the existence of a universal female mystery. This illusion De Beauvoir refers to as "the eternal feminine". She goes on to illustrate how, historically, myths such as this have been used by men to their advantage in the repression of women: Men need not bother themselves with alleviating the pains and the burdens that physiologically are women's lot, since these are "intended by Nature"; men use them as a pretext for increasing the misery of the feminine lot still further, for instance by refusing to grant to woman any right to sexual pleasure, by making her work like a beast of burden. ...read more.

Middle

No reference is made to any parts of the body which might indicate sexuality in a woman; generally, this issue is avoided altogether, its existence denied as women are desexualised, as in Dickens, in which the women are always affectionate but never shown to be sexually attracted to their lovers, or sexuality is referred to only through suggestion and euphemism, as in Jane Eyre, in which hands and eyes are often substituted for penises, and the word "vitals" used for female genitalia: He had a rounded, muscular, and vigorous hand, as well as a long, strong arm. ("Jane Eyre", quoted in "The Marxist-Feminist Collective," in Rice and Waugh's "Modern Literary Theory", p109) However, although it does make reference in this veiled way to the existence of a feminine sexual desire rather than denying its existence, even Jane Eyre can be seen as representing a double standard of sexuality: Jane is expected to repress her passionate nature and sexual desire, remaining the chaste Victorian heroine, while it is considered acceptable that the married Rochester has had a string of mistresses. Later works of fiction are less wary about descriptions of the female form; in Lawrence, for example, one finds this description, in which the writer refers openly to the girl's bosom without evasion or euphemism: She was a handsome girl with a bosom, and dark hair and blue eyes, a girl full of easy laughter, flushed from the sun, inclined to wipe her laughing face in a very natural and taking manner. ("The Rainbow", p16) However, even in these cases it can be observed that descriptions of the female form are always aesthetic, always idealised; physical ...read more.

Conclusion

While she is intelligent and sensitive, Caroline is not depicted as having the physical and mental energy of Shirley; she is more the passive heroine we find in other works of Victorian literature. Her love-sickness over Robert Moore which causes her to become seriously ill, her immediate acceptance, without resentment, of the mother who abandoned her, and her acceptance of life as an old maid if she cannot marry Robert, all seem to be standard to this kind of heroine; thus Caroline's marriage to Robert at the end of the novel, in spite of his ill-treatment and manipulation of her throughout, can be seen as the only possible destiny for her, since her life revolves solely around one man in a way Shirley's does not. De Beauvoir's notion of "the myth of woman" can also be observed in the portrayal of the two old maids in the novel, Miss Mann and Miss Ainley, who Caroline goes to visit when contemplating her future as a spinster. Like Miss Bates in Emma, they are subjected to the mockery and ridicule of those around them, ostracised from a society in which marriage is considered the norm, defining themselves through good works, poor with no husband to support them and no possibility, because of their gender, of economic independence. While both are examples of "the myth of woman" in that both represent traditional ideas of the old maid in Victorian England, they are seen also as opposites; Miss Ainley is depicted as the saintly, maternal figure who accepts current hardships by thinking of a heavenly reward, whereas in contrast is the character of Miss Mann, the sad, embittered old maid who can't help but be resentful of the society which created her. ...read more.

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