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How has the representation of women in literature changed over the course of history?

Literature allows us to comprehend and perceive into the minute details of various aspects of life. It plays with every elements that life and nature has to offer. As social beings we understand that men and women complement each other if not completes each other. If we try to look a little bit closely, we will realize the fact that from the very early days of literature, men and women are treated differently on various situations. This happened due to the lack of widespread educational reform among women than men as the society was blinded with the idea of toxic masculinity. Men has to provide food, men has to read, write and compete and women are there as a subordinate of men. This flawed perception of the society had quite an impact on literature and art for a very long time. Perhaps the idea, the struggle is still there. However, I believe in our present era, intellects and artists are more self-aware and ‘representation of women’ is somewhat different from before if not changed.

While writing this essay about representation of women in literature, the first short story that comes to my mind is Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This is a story during Romantic era where it successfully shows that how every other characters used the female character for their own agenda. It felt like the women had an implied obligation of serving these masculine figures. Just like the youthful Harlots of London by William Blake. Beatrice, the female character in Rappaccini’s Daughter whom the protagonist Giovanni loved was written in such a way that gives us a vivid picture how beautiful and kind hearted she was. The idea at that point of time was women needs to be kind, soft hearted and of loving in nature. They should be shy, a little bit of occupied on her bizarre thoughts and most importantly they need to be very beautiful and if possible virgin. If we look at the paintings of Victorian era we will clearly understand how the society dictated the role of women. The art and paintings were such that the woman cannot make any eye contact with the viewers, as if they are not equal to us men but inferior. But this form of paintings has changed when the French impressionists like Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso felt differently and they were doing revolutionary things. They were trying to break the conventional form of art with controversial subjects. Among such paintings, one with a powerful message is the Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets by Edouard Manet. In this painting, a female person is making an eye contact with the viewers. It felt like literature and art is validating the status of women in front of the society and the society couldn’t do anything but watch. Now at this point we need to understand one crucial factor that over the time how people defined love and marriages worked. According to Eli Finkel, professor of the Northwestern University of psychology department, historians divide marriage in America into three different eras; from the colonial era until 1850, the second era is from 1850 to 1965 and the third era is after 1965 to present. In the first era people used to get married for the sake of physiological and basic needs, like food production and farming where the spouses help each other. As a result, the spouses were more like workmates than soul mates. In the second era people marry for self-fulfilment particularly for love. The idea of marrying someone because of love was something new back then. In the third or present era people marry each other not only just falling in love but they are also looking for complicated sort of needs like self-actualization, personal growth, sense of vitality, etc. Now this transition of the idea of love, contributed in the representation of women in literature and art as a significant entity. Yet in short stories like Araby by James Joyce and Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway during Modernism era, and also in the The Cheater’s Guide To Love by Junot Diaz we see that the male characters at some point in the story either tried to objectify or use women like pleasurable ingredients. But at the same time we also observe that Yunior, the protagonist in The Cheater’s Guide To Love, was rejected by his fiancée after she finds out about cheating. This also essentially proves how women’s liberation over the course of history from Beatrice of Rappaccini’s Daughter of Romantic era to post modernism has turned out to be different.

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Finally, to conclude my discussion I would like to state that the status of women in terms of representation on literature over the course of history has changed. In my honest opinion, women are represented as an entity with much more liberty than before but not objectifying them is still a struggle that persists in the society.

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