Amanda Foreman on five novels about the status of women
The Tale of Genji
By Murasaki Shikibu (c. 1000)
1 . “The Tale of Genji” is the world’s first novel in any language, which is all the more remarkable considering that until the Heian era (794-1185) there was no native written tradition in Japan. The male educated elite wrote in Chinese, a language forbidden to peasants and women. In frustration, Heian elite women invented their own form of writing by transliterating Chinese characters into Kana, a form of phonetic Japanese speech. Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973-1014), a lady in waiting at the imperial court, transformed that desperate act of the dispossessed into the purest expression of aesthetic genius. The result is that Heian culture is the only one in the world that was conceived and curated by women. The greatness of the novel lies in its astute psychological portraits and exquisite evocation of time and place. But at its core lies a meditation on the female condition—on whether there can be any meaning in a life of gilded isolation.
The Book of the City of Ladies
By Christine de Pizan (c. 1400)
2. French Renaissance writer Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) was not only the first female political philosopher in history but also the first writer to do battle with the misogyny of medieval Europe. Her “Book of the City of Ladies” is an unflinching defense of womanhood. She wrote it, she claimed, so that no woman would ever have to feel the shame that she herself experienced after reading endless denunciations of the female sex. From Aristotle down to Boccaccio, the message was clear—women are morally wicked and intellectually inferior. The book is, all told, a remarkable work, not least for its audacity: The author delivers, slipped between inspirational histories of female paragons, the first enunciation of “no means no”: “It therefore angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped . . . that it could give women any pleasure to be treated in such a vile way.”
By Jane Austen (1817)
3. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” declares Anne Elliot, the heroine of “Persuasion.” “Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” In those two lines Austen revealed more of her true feelings about 18th-century gender inequality than in all her other books combined. “Persuasion,” which was published after Austen’s death, is a devastating attack on the silencing of women. Anne Elliot, unmarried and therefore unmoored, is a woman without a voice. It is only through Austen’s innovative technique of free indirect speech that Anne is able to “speak” to the reader in ways that are barred to her in the novel. The happy ending—the marriage proposal from Capt. Wentworth—comes with a pointed twist; he, unlike Anne, does have a voice and can act on his thoughts: “I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach.”
By Kate Chopin (1899)
4. The tragic novel “The Awakening” was originally titled “A Solitary Soul,” a choice that reflected the subject matter of an adulterous woman who commits suicide after being abandoned by her lover. To that extent, the story of Edna Pontellier could read like an American version of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. But “The Awakening” aims for something different—it isn’t a diatribe against feminine delusion but a defense of feminist consciousness. It goes beyond the arguments for legal equality to a discussion of whether a woman can ever truly control her own destiny. Not surprisingly, the critical reaction to the novel was largely vitriolic. A heroine who proclaims, “I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself,” was never going to endear herself to readers brought up on a diet of Dickens and Trollope. Yet Edna is a quintessential American, a heroine who would go on to take Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” to its literal conclusion.
The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood (1985)
5. In November, Muslim students in London, belonging to Goldsmiths University’s Islamic Society, violently broke up a talk given by the Iranian feminist and secularist campaigner Maryam Namazie. If that weren’t bad enough, the following day the Goldsmiths Feminist Society declared its unwavering support for . . . the Islamic Society—an act whose strangeness can only be explained as resentment of Western values, with heavy infusions of victims’ mentality. Atwood’s dystopian tale of forced breeding programs and female enslavement has never been more relevant than now. The book makes the point that patriarchy isn’t possible without some complicity; in the case of the theocratic republic of Gilead, where the novel is set, it comes from an unholy alliance between radical feminists and religious fanatics. “The best and most cost-effective way to control women through reproductive and other purposes was through the women themselves. . . . No empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group.” What seemed far-fetched when Atwood wrote this novel 30 years ago is coming to pass.