Image: Planning the Grand Tour / Emil Brack / Wikimedia Commons
Call me strange, but I find few things more satisfying than curling up in a cosy place with a good book, no matter the weather outside. And when it comes to my choice of reading material, I have a particular penchant for literature that’s at least 50 years old, at the minimum.
Yet as much as I love Robinson Crusoe, Wuthering Heights and Treasure Island, we need to talk about something, kind of like how Victor Frankenstein needed to talk with Captain Walton about what he’d done.
We need to talk about women in classical lit.
I know, I know. In a world where blatant sexism and misogyny are more in-our-faces than ever before thanks to TV and the internet, it would seem old books would be far down on the list of things we need to have a discussion about. But alas, alack, fie, and – well, you get the idea – classical literature is far from glorious when it comes to the portrayal of female characters.
The reason we need to talk about how women are portrayed in classical literature is because of how early we’re usually exposed to them. Think about it for a moment: how many of you studied classical works like Great Expectations or Tom Sawyer in school? Unfortunately, when I was in school, we never discussed the problems with the stereotypical “bitter old crone” portrayal of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, nor asked why Daisy was written to be so vapid in The Great Gatsby. While the position of women in English society was discussed in our analysis of Pride and Prejudice, we never had a conversation about how things have – and have not – changed since then. We were simply told “that was the way things were back then” – never talking about why it wasn’t OK that women essentially had no status unless they were married to a man. Since they’re analysed at young ages, the potential influence these books can have on our worldview – and how we see women – is enormous.
Of course, many works of classical literature were written by women. But that still doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating to see Jane in Jane Eyre pine for the rather despicable Mr. Rochester, or how Mary Shelley (despite being so kickass she wrote Frankenstein when she was 20) treats Frankenstein’s fiancée (and briefly wife) Elizabeth when she’s murdered by the monster – essentially, she only exists in the story for Frankenstein to fall in love with and then get killed (which causes him to then seek revenge).
The roots of the problem go back almost to the very beginnings of Western literature. Greek mythology is rife with blatant misogyny (not to mention countless tales of rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated by Zeus and various other gods). Athenian tragedies were performed exclusively by men, even when depicting female characters, and women were typically portrayed as weak, submissive and little more than accessories in men’s lives. Female characters rarely spoke to one another, and when they did, it was almost always about men. The vast majority of such works would fail the Bechdel Test. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is especially horrible with its theme of incest, and how Jocasta hangs herself after realising the man she has married is her son.
Perhaps even worse is how women are shown in The Odyssey – almost every one of whom Odysseus either has sex with while they try to distract him from his quest to return home (like Circe or Calypso) or outright try to kill him (like the Sirens) amid an atmosphere of sexual tension with hardly any motivation whatsoever for the female characters; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the word “empowerment” is a rather foreign concept to Homer.
A few centuries later, one can easily argue that one of the biggest issues with Shakespeare is how women are depicted in some of his works. Romeo and Juliet, anyone? Yes, it’s a tragedy – not the least of which is how Juliet’s entire life revolves around a single man and how she measures her entire self-worth based upon how he feels about her. Some of Shakespeare’s women admittedly are strong – like Olivia in Twelfth Night – but for every Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra there’s a Gertrude in Hamlet.
It’s been adapted into films countless times, and was one of my favourite books growing up, but Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is one of the most blatantly misogynistic works of the nineteenth century. Lucy Westenra is transformed from a helpless, innocent virgin into an evil whore by Dracula, and ultimately gets killed by the male protagonists after it’s claimed there is no longer anything redeemable about her. Mina Harker also appears to have little agency of her own, and is constantly being rescued from Dracula by men. Other than rejecting marriage proposals by other men, the women make virtually no decisions of their own. The other women we do get to know briefly – Dracula’s three “brides” – are also depicted as wanton succubi, appearing at moments of sexual tension (such as when Jonathan Harker first encounters them one night at Dracula’s castle, when he describes kissing one of them as she “arches her back”).
The question readers have to ask is, why are women being depicted in such a ridiculous way? Why can’t they make decisions of their own or, better yet, be seen as equals to men? Aren’t women more than just sex objects?
All too often in classical literature, women are depicted as sirens, whores, virgins, idiots or other ridiculous – and outright offensive – stereotypes. Personal agency is a rarity for such characters, and even when they do have it, there is almost always a romantic motivation. For the writers from these bygone eras, it’s almost as if having a vagina means characters are incapable of making their own destiny without a man.
Even classical science fiction – which almost by definition imagines a possible future – has its issues. It’s interesting that in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 work Brave New World, though set in a future society where race and gender have ostensibly been transcended (at least for those that choose to live in the society, the “savages” excluded), the female characters like Lenina serve as little more than the objects of romantic affection for characters like John. She is also depicted as incredibly “ditzy,” despite allegedly being from one of the more “gifted” classes of society.
Works of fantasy are not exempted, either. Beloved as it is, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is problematic for the way it depicts women with any degree of authority. The White Witch is an evil queen who wants to rule Narnia purely for the sake of ruling (empathy? She has none of that), and given the fact the entire book is an allegory about Jesus Christ (Aslan the lion is of course merely a thinly veiled version of Christ, what with his being killed by the White Witch and rising from the dead and all), it’s disturbing that women would be portrayed as the source of evil as Lewis depicts it. Oh, and the two female protagonists – Lucy and Susan – constantly follow after their brothers Edmund and Peter. The 2005 film version (which was shot in New Zealand) depicts things differently, but in the book they are mostly relegated to “support” roles when it comes time for the climactic battle against the White Witch’s army, tending to the wounded as nurses rather than fighting like their brothers. It’s not exactly empowering.
None of this admittedly rather lengthy diatribe means it’s wrong to read classical literature, of course. After all, they’re considered “classical” for a reason, and have stood the test of time to be considered of great cultural merit. But no book is “perfect,” and we still need to question what it is we’re reading and how we might be influenced by it and what the book is saying. Indeed, isn’t questioning things one of the primary reasons why we read?