Ritika Sureka analyses male dominated literature from a feminist perspective.
Literature is one of the best ways by which someone can expand his or her consciousness. While this often leads to various issues, female representation seems to be one of the most prominent in literary texts of the past centuries. While noteworthy literature has been produced in the last century, one of the major features missing is a well-rounded female character that can be juxtaposed to the male characters in the texts.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for example, documents an experience that every teenager dreams of living: travelling across America with a couple of eccentric lads, a smoke in one hand and apple pie in the other. This novel was considered the bible for readers at an age when most of us donned t-shirts emblazoned with “rebel!” and professed to the world that we were “different,” just like every other teenager around us. Kerouac drew us into a world of “mad ones… the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time.”
However, reading it is still a male-dominated novel. While Sal Paradise’s enthralling descriptions of perfect purple sunsets and adrenaline-fuelled bohemian experiences with Dean Moriarty fascinated me, I couldn’t help thinking of his girlfriend MaryLou’s point of view.
Marylou participates in almost every one of Sal and Dean’s escapades. Yet, all we know from Sal’s narration about her is that she’s “a golden beauty,” “awfully dumb,” and “a whore.” Such a cursory description is bestowed upon every female character that the men encounter. Their personalities are based on their appearance and sexuality; other traits remain unexplored regardless of whether they’re secondary or minor characters.
“All we know from Sal’s narration about her is that she’s “a golden beauty,” “awfully dumb,” and “a whore.””
With such blatant misogyny present in the novel, one can’t help but imagine the story from Marylou’s perspective. What would a brilliant, but obviously gender biased novel such as On the Road be like if it were told from the secondary female character’s point of view?
While Marylou isn’t much described in the novel apart from being equated to a sex object for Dean, it is through hers and the characters’ actions towards her that the reader can get a better idea of her. It certainly is no mean feat for a woman to travel across the country with two men today, but traveling that way in America in the 60s would have been dangerous and downright scandalous. Taking this into account, Marylou’s characterization completely changes; she’s no longer a “dumb blonde” as Kerouac portrays her, but a progressive individual quite ahead of her time.
There is no easy resolution for misogyny in a male-dominated world of the 60s. For a woman like Marylou, there isn’t a way to find validation in society of that era. The fact that she’s bold enough to challenge the norms, and is labeled a “whore” is where her ultimate victory lies over Sal and Dean.
A modern example of this misogyny in literature can be seen in the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. The character of Hermione Granger, who is written to be academically superior, plays second fiddle to the titular Harry. Rowling forgoes the issues facing a generation of female readers and focuses on the traditional characteristics of this epic fantasy novel. Facing a glass ceiling in her own career, Rowling had the potential to highlight the pressure put on young students, especially female students to achieve academic excellence. Also apparent in the series, but not developed as a topic, is expectation for the female characters to later work a desk job in the ministry, rather than the more dangerous occupation of “auror.” In this respect, Rowling promotes the institutional misogyny of wanting to keep women safe and out of jobs that would see them in harm’s way.
Had the series been told from Hermione’s perspective, the reader could follow the journey of a young witch, discovering her powers, thus keeping the magic surrounding the series alive, while developing Hermione as a feminist icon. Her transition from a bright young girl to her advocating for the rights of house elves to being a fierce fighter on the battlefield is a story arc worthy of its own book series.
Finally, the most recent example of subjectivity of female characters can be found in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Unlike the previous two examples, this novel is told from the perspective of the protagonist, Offred. This novel creates a scenario in which women have been completely stripped of their rights and reduced to carrying out one sole purpose. In doing so, the reader is subjected to the themes of identity and one’s place in the world, in this dystopian future. Though literally dominated by men, The Handmaid’s Tale showcases the importance of women in societal roles.
“Though literally dominated by men, The Handmaid’s Tale showcases the importance of women in societal roles.”
A feminist critique of these novels is valid in the way such commentary is applicable today through the tremendous popularity of novels such as Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Although one can’t judge Kerouac’s spokesperson, Sal, for having such views about women in the 60s, or Rowling’s conformity to societal expectations, one can judge the mindset that, though much reformed in the last sixty years, is still present in people today.