Post-modern view finds gutsy women in classic comparative literature

March 05, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Helen Keller, Margaret Thatcher. When thinking of strong females who changed history, perhaps one of these names comes to mind. What about powerful women in literature? Any of Jane Austen’s female characters, Shakespeare’s Juliet or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne might come to mind. But Sydney Aboul-Hosn, a senior lecturer comparative literature at Penn State, sees strength in female characters oftentimes overlooked.

“Just because the role women play is not highlighted or celebrated in the piece of literature, doesn’t mean they’re not strong characters,” Aboul-Hosn said. “I look at the effect they have on the text. In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Odysseus is out exploring the world, making bad choices, and Penelope gets very little mention. But while he is off exploring, she is keeping suitors at bay and has kept the family and kingdom together for when he comes home. He gets to brag about what he’s done; she doesn’t get to share her experience.”

Aboul-Hosn said often in literature females aren’t the main characters of the story, but they still shape it. From a different perspective, she talks about five of the strongest female characters she has found in literature.

-- Catherine Earnshaw in “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë:
Catherine Earnshaw is a character who revolts against a variety of social conventions. In the end she finally conforms and it kills her. But after her death, she winds up roaming Wuthering Heights, which according to Aboul-Hosn, just goes to show she still escaped social conventions.

“In Emily Brontë’s day, it was rare for a woman to be depicted this way in a novel, and rare for a woman to write one,” said Aboul-Hosn. “All of the Brontë sisters were a little unconventional and had to first use pen names because people were less likely to read and take seriously novels by women.”

-- Sita in the “Ramayana,” a Hindu epic composed between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.:
Sita is the incarnation of a goddess in this classic Hindu epic. She follows her husband -- the incarnation of a god -- all around, gets kidnapped and has to be rescued by her husband.

“Most people see her as a weak character, but she is the agent -- everything that happens in the epic is dependent on the choices she makes,” Aboul-Hosn said. “So yes, she is kidnapped, but the fact that she is kidnapped lets her husband rescue her and allows him to the hero. All the choices she made allow him to be the hero.”

-- Madeline Usher in “Fall of the House of Usher” and Ligeia in “Ligeia” by Edgar Allen Poe:
Usher lives with her brother and never says a word, moving around in the background as a shadowy character. Her brother says she is subject to catatonic fits that make her look dead. During one fit, he buries her alive in a tomb, claiming she died. Eventually, she breaks through chains and out of the stone tomb and returns, seeking revenge on her brother. But bloody from the chains and emaciated, she ends up knocking an oil lamp down, making the whole house go up in flames. According to Aboul-Hosn, there also were suggestions in the story that there was an incestuous relationship between the siblings.

“She is strong in the psychological sense and in the literal sense, escaping the chains and tomb,” Aboul-Hosn said. “Everything her brother does, the choices he makes throughout the story, are based on his fear of her. He’s afraid of her because she represents something he cannot access -- she has a nonverbal intellect.”

In “Ligeia,” Ligeia is intellectually superior to the male narrator. She tutors him and they end up getting married. She gets sick and dies. The narrator marries a wimpy woman who also dies, and Ligeia comes back to live in the second wife’s body.

“She transcends death to come back,” Aboul-Hosn said. “Poe was often considered a misogynist due to the way his male characters treat the female characters. But I am a post-modernist and I look for nonverbal clues. I look for what seems to be on the outside of the text, operating on the fringes of the narrative. From my perspective, the males are afraid of the females, so the female characters are actually the main characters.”

-- Tita de la Garza in “Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel:
Tita falls in love with a man but because she has to take care of her sick mother, her sister marries him instead. While some readers might see Tita as weak because she is trapped inside, Aboul-Hosn said Tita starts to express herself through her cooking and the meals she serves have a physical impact on the people eating her food.

“In the end, her sister is out of the picture, her mother passes away and she gets to marry the man she loves,” Aboul-Hosn said. “At the end, the two explode in a flame of passion.”

-- La Maga in “Hopscotch” by Julio Cortázar:
La Maga is the anti-intellectual in this long Argentinian novel. She feels inferior to the main character, who is well-educated and lives in Paris. But the writer shows that there is an emptiness about the intellectual life, and although La Maga feels inferior, she is really the character that drives the novel. Her intellectual love interest doesn’t have a passion for much of anything.

“There’s a juxtaposition between the woman as the character who feels things and the man who has the intellect but shows the reader his life is empty,” Aboul-Hosn said. “The author may not have intended for it to be seen this way. La Maga is not the central character but she is always in the back of the main character’s mind and that makes her much more central to the text.”

“Sometimes we have to look for the role a woman plays in a novel,” Aboul-Hosn said. “She might not always look like a strong character, but look at the context and the effect on the text and she might become a central character.”



  • Sydney Aboul-Hosn, a senior lecturer comparative literature at Penn State.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated March 22, 2012