Features Editor Sophie Perry is pursuing a Masters in Contemporary Literature, Culture & Theory and has a special interest in Intersectional Feminism, Queer theory, gender performativity and postcolonial identities.
[Featured Image: A stack of lightly coloured books on a shelf.]
In this article for 4×4 Feminist Features the focus will be on books – four books that I, in particular, feel have something very important to say for the feminist movement. As anyone who knows me will agree, books have always been, and will continue to be, a big part of my life. Literature has been the vehicle which introduced me to some of the most inspiring, thought provoking and intriguing feminist thought and ideas. Some of which, over the years, I have agreed with some, well, not so much. In this article I will present to you with four very different books, which through their narratives, their themes, their characters and/or their symbolism make them a poignant read for any budding, or seasoned, feminist.
1. Green Fried Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
While this novel was certainly popular when it was first published, spending more than thirty weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List no less, it is probably the least well know of the four books on this list. So it feels right to start off with this one! This novel by Fannie Flagg’s was published in 1987 and weaves together the past and present through the friendship of Evelyn Couch, a southern housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly lady in a nursing home. Throughout the novel Ninny tells Evelyn stories of her youth growing up in a town called Whistle Stop in Alabama with all its colourful characters, including her family members.
I feel that this novel is an important one and should appear on this list for its emphasis on female relationships, both platonically and romantically. In the present the blossoming friendship between Evelyn and Ninny inspires Evelyn to make positive changes in her life such as selling Mary Kay Cosmetics, at Ninny’s urging. While in the past the ‘friendship’ (See: Caring and Committed Queer Relationship) between Ruth and Idgie is accepted universally by the town in a fairly matter of fact nature.
Society often attempts to pit girls against each other, making life into an unbearable competition. This novel instead highlights the many ways in which women can support, love and shift each other up.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale
If you have taken any sort of Contemporary Women’s/Feminist Writing class then The Handmaid’s Tale is bound to be on the reading list. Or, if it is not then it will find a way to come up in class discussions – one way or another. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel is a harrowing read, exploring the roles of women in an extreme patriarchal, totalitarian theocracy. The narrative of the novel is a complicated one, finely balancing the ‘present’ with flashbacks of past events leading up to the fall of the ‘Old World’ and the rise of Gilead. The novel is told from the perspective of Offred a Handmaid whose role is to provide an infertile elite couple, known as the Commander and his Wife, with a child. While the novel is certainly a work of feminist fiction, the area we will be looking at briefly today, it deftly interweaves a number of themes including religion, politics, class, sexual autonomy and identity.
I believe The Handmaid’s Tale makes for an important, and timely, feminist read for its focus on the subordination of women and their lack, and demonization, of sexual autonomy. The thematic parallels between the novel, where men hold all the power and women are no more than a ‘walking womb’, and real life, where the #MeToo movement and female sexual autonomy are controversial ideas, are undeniable. Especially at a time when two men can be accused of sexual assault but go on to become the President and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
3. The Bell Jar
It was on February 11th 1963 author and poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning with her head in the oven. Having sealed off the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with household items such as tape, towels and cloths she left behind Nicholas and Frieda, a husband she was separated from, her poetry and, of course, her only novel The Bell Jar. Published on January 14th 1963 the short period between the novels publication and Plath’s death meant that there were little innocent readings of the novel. Plath’s death somewhat ‘overshadows’ the novel by making it almost impossible to distinguish between the novel as a piece of literary work and Plath’s death as an ‘event’ which is coupled, of course, with the fact that novel in itself is semi-autobiographical.
The plot of the novel is set in the early 1950s and follows Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old who has gained a summer internship at a women’s magazine in New York City. Despite being bright and having academic promise Esther feels isolated and discouraged by her future, particularly by what a women’s role means: stay a virgin till marriage, get married, have a baby. As the summer continues Esther has flashbacks to her problematic relationship with her ex-boyfriend as well as not being accepted into a creative writing programme, spiralling her into a suicidal depression. Esther is taken to a private psychiatric institution where she is given electroshock therapy and various other treatments.
The importance of The Bell Jar is that it highlights the oppressive nature of patriarchal society in the mid-twentieth century and how such structures effect female identity and sense of ‘self’. Esther describes how her life is being suffocated by a ‘bell jar’ which can symbolically stand for the rigorous set of standards by which a women must measure herself and her life.
4. Anne of Green Gables
Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel is certainly the oldest on our list and, perhaps, the most celebrated. Since its publication the novel has been adapted for stage, television, film and radio and has been translated into 36 languages and sold over 50 million copies. The novel tells the story of Anne Shirley, an orphaned 11-year old girl who is mistakenly sent to aging siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert instead of the boy they intended to adopt to help out on their farm. The novel following how Anne learns to adapt to her new life with Marilla and Matthew, to Green Gables, to the town and all the people in it.
The main reason for choosing to put this novel on the list is down to its titular character Anne Shirley, who is a feminist icon plain and simple. In world that told, and continues to tell, women and girls to make themselves smaller, to be quiet and meek, to minimise their passions, to look and act a certain way Anne Shirley stands out. Montgomery describes Anne as having long, bright red hair and freckles meaning she does not blend into the crowd very easily. Throughout the novel Anne is established as a highly complicated, three-dimensional character who is imaginative, passionate, talkative, dramatic, vain and hot headed. In one particular incident Anne’s classmate Gilbert Blythe makes fun of Anne’s hair by calling her ‘Carrots’ (what ginger hasn’t heard that one?), taking a no-nonsense approach to the insult Anne smashes a slate over his head.
Anne is a fascinating character whose wise, and often dreamily imaginative, words can offer advice for people of all ages. I have listed below some of her best quotes in my opinion, which show that your imagination, your passions and your thoughts can never be too big or too small.
“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”
“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”
“Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while.”