Novels like Jane Eyre, The Handmaid’s Tale, Wuthering Heights, and many more, give us a clear denunciation of feminist traits within particular female characters such as Jane Eyre herself, Catherine, Offred and Moira. They break the glass ceiling and set themselves free: they give way for females in literature to thrive on the platform designed for men; and thus they are a novelty of their century.
For instance, Jane Eyre is criticised for having the privilege of simply choosing to better her life: by working hard to maintain a career for herself; for deciding to leave Rochester after she realises that he has been hiding his mentally-ill wife in the attic (I know right — what’s the deal with him?). From a young age, Jane Eyre was renowned for her loud opinion, and characters along the way, such as the Reeds (everyone agrees they are horrid family members!), tried to silence her into submission; to force her to succumb to their abuse. Her ideas were strong, and although Lowood school made her yield to the Helen-Burns-ideals (being patient and tolerant), she still retained her natural questioning-self. However, despite this, Jane is confused: her ideals are being threatened by outside questions and teachings. We completely know how this feels right?!
Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, highlights this important theme: she herself was testing society by writing novels, and although she published them under the pseudonym of Currer Bell, her novel made readers gasp: she did not write something that readers of that age would want to read, but instead she gave them something more worthwhile and changing. Jane Eyre, moreover, records the journey of self-discovery and finding one’s true identity or calling; Jane was a true heroine although she didn’t look it, in which Bronte used to combat the norm. Jane Eyre was a dependent, which bothered her so much that she chose to break free; “I am no bird and no net ensnares me“.
As we read through this novel, we can see what the expected female was during that time: poised, delicate, silent, angelic and all-accepting — it was fantastic to note that Jane Eyre breaks all this down, forming a new expectation: that of ‘let women be’. Jane was considered to be the inferior sex, living under a male-dominated society; Rochester was her master and he expected her to marry him despite his hidden wife; St. John Rivers basically forced her to throw away her life to spend it by his side in a loveless marriage — thank the lords she fought the pressure! (St. John Rivers is not someone you would want to spend your life with, right?!) Thus, we must applaud Jane Eyre for breaking boundaries and persisting forward. Ultimately, once she was sure of who she was, she returned to Rochester (as she did love him, of course!) and they became equals.
Although the Brontë’s were known to break glass ceilings, so was Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood, which I’d like to add is one of my favourite authors as she portrays feminism so strongly in her novels and other important themes I find of importance. The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about the oppression of a society, claimed as Gilead, under a male-dominant rule. There is a fertility problem and women who are able to reproduce are ‘chosen’, and used as a vessel to do so. They become handmaids and thus, they must accompany a married couple to reproduce with the husband, therefore popping out a baby, like a machine they are treated as.
This novel was written in 1985, but feels as if it has been published in today’s generation. Atwood predicted many things; oppression, male-domination on female reproductive organs, rebellion against the government, unjust killings, females being ethereally heightened, etc. It paves the way to feminism and it makes loud and clear women’s voices in society: Offred, the main protagonist in The Handmaid’s Tale, although suppressed, fights the totalitarian regime in her own cunning way; she forces herself to remember her past in order to fight Gilead’s attempt at indoctrinating them. The government of Gilead wants to clean the idea of the past from everybody’s mind — this hits a note that we see in today’s society, such as Trump’s wall and this idea of white-domination leading to a purer society.
Therefore, these novels transcend generations and time itself to still be relevant and hit a chord with society; our job is to interpret them according to the times, and use them as weapons against society. Literature is the bearer of ideas, creativity and innovation — it is the foundation of our education. It is quite interesting how a novel can seem so innocent by its cover, but when analysed it becomes a weapon in disguise; a morse code of secrets and opinions.
If you’d like to get a taste of some classic feminist novels, try Pride and Prejudice (a beautiful novel indeed) by Jane Austen, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and any piece by Virgina Woolf!