Caro is a 20-something Lit student with a tendency to ignore the world in favor of books and coffee, prone to having far too many projects going on at once, and destined to become a drunken cat lady. She blogs about books over at Wuthering Reads and writes TV recaps at NoWhiteNoise.
Jane Austen & the Subversion of Sexist Tropes
We live, for the most part, in a largely patriarchal society – so it’s not surprising to find that many storytelling tropes ooze sexism. A conversation I had with an extremely intelligent, articulate and socially aware friend re: this sort of trope and its subversions got me thinking – what sexist tropes did Jane Austen deconstruct and subvert in her novels?
Entitled to Have You and Nice Guy™
The Entitled to Have You trope presents a man who, because of whatever reason, feels entitled to a woman. If she rejects him, the man in question will usually show remarkably selective hearing and interpret her “no” as a “maybe” and keep harassing her with invitations, convinced that his relentlessness will eventually pay off. And the worst part is that, in most cases, it does.
Austen presents this trope in Pride and Prejudice, through the one and only Mr. Collins. Elizabeth very clearly tells him that, while she’s flattered by his interest, she doesn’t feel the same way. Instead of taking it at face value, Mr. Collins assumes that she’s playing hard to get. Now, in many other works of fiction, his perseverance (see harassing) would have paid off and Elizabeth would have eventually ~seen the error of her ways and married him – but not in an Austen novel. No, Mr. Collins isn’t portrayed as sympathetic for his insistence, but rather as pathetic, annoying and incapable of taking a hint.
Another trope, often closely linked to Entitled to Have You, is the Nice Guy™. John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey is the perfect example of this. Thorpe believes that because he’s such a Nice Guy, he’s entitled to Catherine’s love. When she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, he sulks forevermore and decides that her rejection stems from Catherine not Appreciating Him Like She Should, instead of realizing that hey, the lady has the right to want whoever she decides.
Bad Boy Woobie, or Jerkass Woobie
This is another particularly annoying trope, especially because it’s everywhere lately. Writing the Big Bads as, you know, bad, and still going out of their way to make them sympathetic is something that narrators everywhere do all the time; and after over two decades of being exposed to storytelling, I have no patience for it anymore.
Apparently, neither did Jane Austen. The Jerkass Woobie was not at all woobified. We’re not only not expected to excuse his faults because of his Daddy Issues, but we’re actually encouraged to hold him accountable for his actions, as we would any functional adult. An example of this is Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham, whose lies, manipulations and tendency to prey on young girls are by no means excused by the trauma of losing his father as a child.
One Special Girl
This one’s tricky, because at first sight, it doesn’t seem sexist. What’s wrong about portraying a woman as a human being worthy of respect, after all? But scratch a little under the surface and you’ll realize that there are few things as insulting as a normally assholish man suddenly wanting to be ~good and ~different to a woman he perceives as The Paragon of Right Womanhood. This is problematic because it implies that certain women are ~deserving of being treated horribly, unlike the One Special Girl who makes the otherwise horrible guy want to respect her because She’s Not Like The Other Girls. That One Special Girl is usually also a Madonna, never a Whore.
Austen subverts this trope in Sense and Sensibility, through the relationship between Willoughby and Marianne and the fact that he’s not magically redeemed by her love. Being a serial player is part of who Willoughby is, and somebody’s personality is not about to change because The Right Person entered their life. It’s one thing when a person wants to change – but placing the responsibility of somebody’s change on an external party is not the way to go, partly because it’s too much responsibility and partly because it quite simply doesn’t work.
Thanks, Caro, for the excellent guest post on sexist tropes. A lot of food for thought! What do you all think? Have you noticed anything similar in Austen’s works? Can you give other examples, from other texts?
A Streetcar Named Desire is my first experience with Tennessee Williams. Going into this work, I knew very little about it and I knew very little about the writer. As it turns out, I may have just discovered a new favorite. Williams was a semi-openly gay man (at the time of this publication – he did come out publicly in the 1970s) whose works, though certainly rife with queer elements, did not deal directly with gay characters or situations. A Streetcar Named Desire, though, like The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a perfect example of how Williams subverts heteronormative literary traditions in order to queer his text. The play is about two sisters: Blanche, a mild, hypersensitive, and mentally disturbed/delusional middle-aged woman; and Stella, subordinate, sexual, and a symbol of the “New South.” It is also about Stella’s husband, Stanley. He is disturbingly sympathetic – an evil man who one can’t help but identify with. Not since reading Lolita and encountering Mr. Humbert Humbert have I felt so simultaneously enthralled by and repulsed by a literary character.
Blanche, who has suffered two major traumas, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time, until she can get back on her feet. It is soon discovered that these traumas have been the impetus for certain scandals which have forced Blanche out of her hometown and her career. These secrets are revealed to Stanley through informants (he is a man of “connections” – likely due to his time in the Army and his lingering camaraderie with GI Vets), but Blanche continues to lie and tell stories right up to the end; the end being one of the most disturbing imaginable. Stanley, in all his pure heterosexuality and machismo is the source of the play’s sexual gaze. This is a revelation for the time period and is in fact, ironically, one of the two major sources of queerness in the play. Blanche and her history explain the second and more obvious queering. The most interesting element of this play, and there are many, is that these two queer representations are battling each other for supremacy over the heteronormative element, which is to say – Stella.
What is particularly powerful and unique about the play, and I hear this is common for most of Williams’s plays, is that it is much more about language and character than it is about story (though that is there too, obviously). The nature, the structure, of plays typically do not lend themselves well to story-through-language or through characterization, due to their sparseness; however, Williams tells quite a bit of his story in the stage direction, so it is easy to see why this play would be so difficult to stage successfully (and, to my knowledge, it has only been done perfectly well in one instance – with is that of the first staging, including Marlon Brando). Williams comments on the changing nature of gender roles and sexual politics, post-World War II; he adeptly, brilliantly, exposes the new American male – the romantic but tragic and dangerous hero-come-home. Women, who had taken up work and head-of-household positions were suddenly forced back into their homes, back into submission, and the power dynamics, social confusion, and family disruption this caused is clearly explored and sensitively, if shockingly, delivered.
He also comments on elements such as “New South versus Old South,” mental health, pederasty, post-traumatic stress disorder, class, race, gender, power, and control. This short play packs a wallop – it is loaded with themes, yet so delicately crafted that the characters and their stories still manage to come first. While Tennessee Williams is largely considered to be a “New Realist” or “Expressionist,” and this certainly shows in the themes of this play and in its construction, I would argue that this play is a work of Modern Tragedy, particularly due to the absence of religion/morality and the inability of any character to gain redemption or find peace. The film, though perfectly cast and lovingly produced, unfortunately changes the ending and one of the most important dialogic moments, which eliminates the modern and tragic elements of the play. This is a great disappointment, as the play itself is perhaps perfect – which is simultaneously why it is one of the most often produced, most sought out by high-profile actors, and most disappointingly delivered.
This is one of the most moving, enjoyable, disturbing, and surprising works that I have read this year. I am eager to read more from Tennessee Williams, hopefully in the very near future (I’m considering pursuing him as a project, after finishing with John Steinbeck).
“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”
“When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely.”
“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”
“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Sodom on the Thames is a descriptive and argumentative essay divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on one element of male same-sex love and/or sex in the late-Victorian period.
Part One, “Sex in the City,” deals with the infamous Boulton and Park case. In it, the history of two men (Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park) who were also crossdressers and likely prostitutes, known as Lady Stella Clinton (Boulton) and Fanny Winifred (Park), is given and their trial for intent to commit the act of sodomy is relayed. Kaplan employs readings from court records, newspapers, personal correspondences (diaries, letters, etc.) and a famous pornographic novel written by John Saul to reconstruct the world of Boulton and Park, including the way male-male love and sexuality manifested itself.
Part Two, “Love Stories,” recounts the story of William Johnson Cory, a master at Eton College who had intimate relations with some of his students. It also relays the story of those students’ relationships with each other (and other male and female lovers) as they aged and moved on from college (high school). Kaplan again relies heavily on primary source documents, such as letters and diaries, to reconstruct their friendships and romantic and sexual relationships. He also discusses linked fears and perceptions between the Boulton and Park case and the pederasty and effeminizing nature of all-boys schools (where boys were encouraged to play the role of women in plays, for instance).
Part Three, “West End Scandals,” and Part Four, “Wilde’s Time,” both deal with sexual and romantic scandals of the period, not all of which were homosexual in nature (many were about Irish divorce cases, for instance). His primary investigation here is not just how homosexual acts were persecuted and prosecuted, but how class and wealth impacted one’s treatment by the law and by the press. Kaplan makes the case that the aristocratic and powerful “criminals” were often given preferential treatment under the law, but the press at this time became more publically outspoken against such biased treatment and often pushed prosecution of offenders when the legal authorities might have otherwise turned a blind eye. Such realities set the scene for Oscar Wilde’s trial and are likely why he was eventually convicted and sentenced to such severe punishment.
The introduction, epilogue, and conclusion are, like the intermediary chapters, very interesting and add much to Kaplan’s overall argument. He discusses in these sections, for instance, the role that queer and feminist theories play on the construction of this work. He also supports his decision to relay these histories in story form as a way to add depth and honesty to the discussion, elements which historical analysis or theoretical approaches might typically lack. Kaplan is clearly passionate about the subject material –sometimes arguably to the point of bias- and anyone interested in sexuality and gender issues of the late-Victorian period will likely gain much from reading this book. Though it is not in the strictest sense a historical synthesis (the lack of a works cited/bibliography speaks to this), Kaplan’s argument for adding storytelling narrative to historical analysis is well-taken and well-received.
Full Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Inspired Quill, with whom I have a working relationship; however, I was not in any way involved in the editing, publishing, marketing, proofing, or submission review process for this book. In fact, I only received a copy because the editor-in-chief mentioned that this writer comes recommended by Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is a favorite writer of mine, so she thought I might like to take a look.
The collection is made up of seventeen short stories of varying length, some of which deal with the same characters and all of which deal with the same general region (southwestern United States / southern California) and the same type of people (struggling poor/working-class ethnic and sexual minorities). Most of the stories are incredibly interesting and well-written. There were a few stories in the bunch which did sometimes feel stressed or project-like, reminding me a bit of a bad hair day (not that the stories were bad, but that one starts with a good head of hair and, no matter how you tease it, yank it, or play with it, it just will not do what you want it to do). That being said, these few stressed stories were definitely the exception, not the rule. In fact, I wrote a ranking next to each story in the index (Poor, Good, Very Good, Great) and of the seventeen stories, only two were anything other than Good.
What struck me first about the writing is the narrative voice. It is distinct, commanding, and engaging. The first story, “The Giant Rubber Gorilla,” opens the collection with a perfect sense of what is to come. The reader quickly recognizes these people who will be explored, the situations that might be examined, and the tone which can be expected throughout. Similarly, the collection closes with “Dandruff as Tall as Donald Duck,” which, in conjunction with the lengthier story which immediately preceded it, was a great way of wrapping-up the collection, reminding the reader of its major themes and the general determination of these people to survive, despite the perpetual road blocks placed in their way.
Some of the stories went even beyond good story telling. “Mother’s Tongue” and “Secrets of the Days and Nights,” for example, were stand-outs in their creative approach and in the slight inkling toward hopefulness they emulated, which is not an overarching theme in this collection. The stories work together the way a great fashion show should: The collection has a primary theme, it starts with bang, and then has its lulls and explosions throughout, and finally ends with a reminder of what the collection was all about, leaving the memory of it strong in the mind. Each story, like each piece in a fashion collection, simultaneously stands on its own and fits into the larger theme of the work. In this case, the theme is a restless disappointment among a class of people on the margins. There is a small, flickering light of hope that blinks throughout, meek but ever-present.
My personal favorites were the stories about Duffy and her family. They were the most powerful and seemed to work almost like the back-bone of the collection. It would be very interesting to see Duffy and the others in her life appearing again in future collections.
With this first collection, Runyon is following in the tradition of the great regional American writers. Flannery O’Connor, John Fante, Bret Harte, and Sinclair Lewis all wrote stories about a particular group of people in a particular region of the United States, and their stories stayed true to the people and their particular plights and successes. The triumph of their stories was due in part to the writers’ craftsmanship and vision, but also to the honesty of the narrative which grounded the fictive worlds deeply in reality.
If Runyon continues to write about this world and these people, we might be witnessing the start of a very special body of work. E.J. Runyon is a new writer to watch, and I applaud Inspired Quill for recognizing this talent and taking a chance on sharing it with the world.
I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?
I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.
A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.
Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.
Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.
“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).
“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).
“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).
“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).
“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).
“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).
“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).
A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.
I have been away from Shakespeare for far too long. I have taken two courses in Shakespeare, one in college and one in graduate school. In both cases, we spent the majority of the time studying his histories and tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Henry V, etc.), as well as the history of the period, his contemporaries (Marlowe, Jonson, Lily, Nashe, etc.) and some of the sonnets. In only one class did we read a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I firmly believe we only read this one because a) the instructor felt it necessary to include at least one example of Shakespeare’s comedic work and b) the instructor was also interested in mythology. So, I went into this play not having read any Shakespeare in more than 4 years and having very little experience with his comedies, though I’ve read quite a bit of his oeuvre.
While it is impossible to know just how much of As You Like It is still in its original form (this play, like all his others, was changed multiple times to suit stage needs and audience feedback, prior to having been printed for the first time), it is clear that it was likely written around 1599 (near the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign) and that it fits into the genre of the pastoral, which is inspired by ancient Greek literature. As in other pastoral stories, this one includes high-ranking members of society who must flee from court and hide in the countryside, for fear of imprisonment or execution. They abandon their princely lives to become shepherds, farmers, shopkeepers, etc.
As the play begins, we learn that Sir Rowland de Bois has died and his power and property have passed on to his eldest son Oliver. Oliver is charged with taking care of his brother, Orlando, but the brothers are not friends and Oliver instead completely neglects Orlando, leaving him without education, without property, and without any training which might allow Orlando to advance in the world and make a life for himself. There is a wrestling match at court, which Oliver attempts to “fix” so that the master wrestler, Charles, will kill Orlando during the match – but Orlando wins and during the match catches the eye of the beautiful Rosalind (who is the daughter of Duke Senior, who has been usurped by his brother, Frederick). After the match, Orlando learns that he must flee for his safety, so he heads for the Forest of Ardenne, where Duke Senior happens to be hiding, and is soon followed there (unknowingly) by Rosalind and her bosom friend Celia, both of whom are disguised (Rosalind as a boy, Celia as a darker-skinned peasant).
Ultimately, Duke Frederick orders Oliver to find Orlando and bring back Celia (Duke Frederick’s daughter), and threatens him with destruction and poverty if he fails. In the Forest of Ardenne, Orlando meets Rosalind as Ganymede (that name should ring some bells!), who says he will pretend to be Rosalind so that Orlando can practice courting her. This is some of the most elaborate gender-bending in literary history and is somewhat shocking to find in a 17th Century play. Rosalind will eventually become the mastermind of a community wedding, where four couples get married, after agreeing to her terms (given as Ganymede) the day before. There was a woman in love with Rosalind (as Ganymede) who agrees to marry another man, if Ganymede can convince her not to want to marry him (which he does by revealing himself to be a woman) and an agreement from her father, Duke Senior, that he will allow his daughter, Rosalind, to marry Orlando, if only they could find Rosalind (which, again, comes true after Ganymede takes off his disguise).
It gets even more complicated when we recall that, at the time, women’s roles would have been played by boys. So, here we have a boy playing Rosalind, who then – in the play- pretends to be a boy (so a boy playing a girl playing a boy), who then reveals himself to be a girl (all the while still a boy in real life). Talk about a sense of humor!
The primary theme of As You Like It seems to be the complexity of life and the tongue-in-cheek spoofing of conventional romances, where men are love slaves to their ladies and where love itself acts like a disease, disabling its sufferer. This play is littered with arguments, possibilities, choices, and dichotomies, all of which are presented as realities of life, without much (if any) preaching on Shakespeare’s part. There are plenty of binaries, but few didactic absolutes – it is as if Shakespeare is saying, “these are the many ways man and woman can live, the many choices they could make, and who are we to say which is right or wrong?”
My thoughts are all over the place on this one, because there is so much going on (within the play) and so much being said (by Shakespeare, through the play). That being said, the plot and story are surprisingly easy to follow, despite the play’s complexity. It is also highly entertaining and enjoyable because of the novelty of the story, for its time, and also because of its farcical nature and its ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of love, all the while being a love story. Enjoyable, interesting, thought-provoking, and funny. Classic Shakespeare.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Gender Roles, Primogeniture, Patriarchy, History, Comedy/Drama, Identity, Homoeroticism, , Cross-dressing.
Symbols/Motifs: Ganymede, Poetry (Orlando), Cuckoldry; Exile, Artifice, Homoeroticism.
Dichotomies: City (Court) vs Country; Nature vs Fate; Realism vs. Romance; Old vs. Young; Noble Birth vs. Social Advancement; Reason vs. Foolishness.
“The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.” (11)
“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” (25)
“I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it.” (33)
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” (44)
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (89)
*Page numbers correspond to the 2000 Pelican Shakespeare edition, ed. by Frances E. Dolan.