Women in Literature

Published 06 Jul 2017

Most characterizations of women in literature are based from a patriarchal mindset. Women are often portrayed in many short stories and novels as nagging wives, overly demanding mothers or passive individuals who rely on fate and miracles to be able to surpass misfortune. These demeaning representations of women in literature are very much evident in the short stories I Stand Here Ironing (1956) and To Room Nineteen (1978), as well as in the novel The Joy Luck Club (1989). In the process, the patriarchal belief that it was disastrous for a woman to take charge of a family was reinforced.

Tillie Lerner Olsen’s short story I Stand Here Ironing was centered on the unnamed mother of a 19-year-old girl named Emily. A stranger, most likely a guidance counselor or a teacher, informed the mother that her daughter was having problems at school and that they needed to talk about what they can do to help her. While ironing, Emily’s mother ruminated on the conversation that might take place on this meeting. She then reflected on Emily’s troubled childhood and how it contributed immensely to her current state.

The mother blamed herself for her daughter’s turbulent childhood and its detrimental effects on her. The mother thought that Emily might have enjoyed a happy childhood if she became a full-time parent instead of working outside the home (Olsen n. pag.). Olsen used this cycle of rumination and blame as a means of questioning up to what extent can a mother can be held responsible for the fate of her children. It is easy for society to criticize a young single mother for not having enough time for her children, but neither is society doing anything to improve her lot. Thus, the young single mother is forced into an impossible situation – provide for her children and take care of them at the same time.

Doris Lessing’s short story To Room Nineteen, meanwhile, frankly discussed how a woman’s disillusionment with marriage drove her to suicide. The protagonist, Susan Rawlings, was a middle-aged housewife who appeared to have it all – a gainfully employed husband, four healthy children and an affluent middle-class lifestyle. But the truth was that she was miserable – she felt that her life was centered around household chores and looking after her family’s needs (Lombardi 14). As a result, Susan started to become anxious and distant, eventually withdrawing from her husband. Her husband, in turn, began resorting to extramarital affairs.

Desperate for some time alone, Susan spent her afternoons all by herself in a rented hotel room. Her husband, thinking that she was involved in an affair, tracked her down to the hotel and confronted her. Knowing full well that he will never understand her predicament, Susan admitted to him that she was having an extramarital affair even if she really wasn’t. The next day, she committed suicide in the hotel room which she frequented.
The tragic turn of events in To Room Nineteen reflected how the institutions of marriage and family are deeply tied to a woman’s identity. In the eyes of traditional society, a woman was fit only to become a wife and mother.

Women who go against this norm were considered to be good as dead – they eschewed their identity by abandoning their duties as wives and mothers. Thus, some married women preferred death over putting up with a suffocating marriage.

The Rules of the Game, a chapter in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, was about the shaky relationship between Lindo Jong and her daughter Waverly. In her younger years, Waverly was a chess prodigy who was rapidly attracting media attention because of her talent. Lindo, meanwhile, used her daughter’s faculty to show off to other people (Tan 101). Furthermore, she constantly pressured Waverly to succeed in chess. Out of annoyance and frustration, Waverly stopped playing chess.

It is very obvious why Lindo used Waverly’s talents to show off. Being a full-time housewife, Lindo had no career or any other achievement to speak off. Thus, she is passing off her children’s achievements as hers. In doing so, Lindo secretly hoped that people would think that she is a good mother for raising high-achieving children. When that happens, she would finally have an achievement of her own.

Women are often portrayed in many forms of literature as the forces behind the detriment of a family. But this representation stemmed from the patriarchal belief that the only role of a woman in a family was to serve her husband and children. When freed from impossible expectations and given the same opportunities as men, women would be able to prove their worth. No longer would they be considered as the downfall of the family.

Works Cited

  • “I Stand Here Ironing.” 2 April 2006. The Short Story Classics: The Best from the Masters of the Genre. 29 May 2009
  • Lombardi, Giancarlo. Rooms with a View: Feminist Diary Fiction, 1952-1999. Bridgewater: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.
  • Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1989.
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