Essay: Feminist Lit the Changing Views

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Feminist Lit

The Changing Views of the Feminine in Early Twentieth Century American Literature

The history of Western civilization -- and Eastern, for that matter -- can be seen by one perspective as the history of patriarchal dominance and the subjugation and objectification of women. The vast majority of recognized historical figures, from governmental and military leaders to artists, scientists, and well-known philosophers and thinkers are male, which to our modern sensibilities shows a clear gender-based prejudice against the female sex. The fact that women were not similarly recognized for their achievements with an equal regularity cannot simply be put down to male rejection of the significance of such achievements, however; the actual implications of Western history's patriarchal focus are much more profound and far reaching. It is not only that women's achievements were less recognized than their male counterparts, but that they in fact accomplished less in these fields due to a persistent and pervasive belief that they were less capable in physical and intellectual pursuits than men.

It is this fundamental belief in feminine inferiority that lies at the heart of the patriarchal view and progress of history, and it is the slow shift in this belief during the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century that has allowed for the emergence of new views of history and of human thought in general. This is especially noticeable in American literature of the early twentieth century, where the meaning of "female" and the ways in which women were affected by and interacted with the world came under close scrutiny and old views were often violently rejected. Yet to simplify the feminist perspective to an assertion of female equality is incredibly naive; rather, authors like Jean Toomer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Hilda Doolittle tracked the change of the female from object to individual and eventually to a full-fledged and active protagonist.

Doolittle's poem "Helen," first published in 1924, takes an ironic look at the traditional patriarchal view of the female as object. The poem, as the title implies, is concerned with the historic/mythic figure of Helen, whose beauty and questionable fidelity (depending on the version and perspective of the tale) lay at the heart of the Trojan War, one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts in the ancient world, and a touchstone for the later Greek writers for many -- if not most -- of the themes upon which they were writing. Military heroism, obedience and defiance to the gods, and epic familial struggles were all a part of the Trojan War and its aftermath. But the cause of it all was Helen, a beautiful woman, who was stolen from one man the way one might steal a cattle or an expensive jewel. Helen, in short, is entirely objectified in the story of the Trojan War, having very little agency and important only for what she symbolized.

Hilda Doolittle takes this symbolism and inverts it, using the techniques of imagist poetry to paint a verbal portrait of Helen that seems at once aligned with and diametrically opposed to the traditional and mythic view. This is true not only of Helen herself, but also of Doolittle's use of other traditional Western symbols. The color white is generally associated with purity, innocence, and even explicitly virginity. Doolittle uses it constantly throughout the poem to refer to Helen, whom "All Greece hates" and "reviles," which is not generally the way innocence and virginity are treated (Doolittle 1942, line 1, 6). This shows the paradox in the way Helen is viewed; she is a symbol of Woman, who'd supposed to be pure and virginal, and yet Helen was also the object of great sexual desire, and it is this aspect of womanhood -- that which should arguably be most important to an ancient society insofar as it is procreative -- that leads to her condemnation.

An imagist poet such as Doolittle cannot help but to deal with objects, as it is perhaps the defining feature of such poetry. The short story "Fern" by Jean Toomer, on the other hand, deals with the woman-as-object scenario in a much different fashion. Though Doolittle hints at the impossibility of objectifying women in her use of symbolism and imagery, Toomer deals with the issue directly and explicitly through the use of narrative and plot. As a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, race was also an essential theme of Toomer's writing, and the may parallels between the perspective towards and portrayal of African-Americans and women is highly apparent in this work. Both groups were also experiencing new found freedoms and opportunities following the First World War, and the concept of objectification along both gender and racial lines began to crumble under the force of this recently regained agency.

Fern is representative of this failed objectivity. No matter what part of her you looked at, the narrator says, you were immediately drawn to her eyes -- her source of perception, and perhaps even of objectifying you. Toomer makes it even more clear that Fern, and women and African-Americans in general, cannot truly be perceived and treated as objects when his narrator notes that "when she [Fern] was young, a few men took her, but got no joy from it" (Toomer 1637). The objectification attempted in the sexual act failed; though these men possessed her for those moments in the way they had intended, the outcome was not what they had learned to expect from past experiences. Fern could not actually be possessed, and was not even partially an object.

Still, Fern shows little real agency. She is enigmatic, with no one being able to truly perceive and therefore understand her due to the centuries -- millennia, even -- of her subjugation both as an African-American and as a woman. Thus, Toomer shows Fern slipping away from traditional patriarchal objectification, but it is not really replaced by anything else. That is, one (false) way of understanding has been demolished, but there is no new and more truthful way of understanding presented in its place. Fern is still seen through the lens of patriarchal this lens is simply unable to bring her (or the gender and race she symbolizes) into focus -- the tool is exposed as inadequate, without any meaningful new assessment of the feminine. The 1920s was the decade in which women first won the right to vote in the United States, and though they had individually been shaping their own identity and building a sense of agency for centuries, this marked a major turning point in the broad sociopolitical clout of women.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet "I, being born a woman and distressed" reflects the agency and self-determination that became a recognized part of the female identity during this pivotal period in history. The very structure of the poem is somewhat defiant; though the sonnet is one of the most rigid poetic structures in the English language, Millay finds a sense of freedom in it, choosing the structure typical of an Italian sonnet over that of an English or Shakespearean sonnet. In addition, she breaks with the strict iambic pentameter rhythm of a traditional sonnet's line with her very first word, "I," which is the essential (and therefore emphasized or stressed) word of the line and poem (Millay 1611, line 1). This creates a subtle wordplay with last word of the line, "distressed," which read aloud could become "de-stressed;" the feminine predicament which Millay is asserting her independence from in this poem -- the cause of feminine distress -- is the lack of emphasis on the female "I" or self-perception.

It is not merely structurally that Millay's sonnet reflects this sentiment, however, but such strains are also clearly seen in the subject and narrative of the poem. The first eight lines of the poem (the octet typical of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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