Friday, August 24, 2012

Do you feel able do detect the gender of a novelist from the text? What issues are raised by this question? Refer to two or more novels

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Detecting the gender of a novelist merely from the words on the page is a complicated and in some regards, an impossible process. There are however implicit clues that are littered throughout works of literature which may reveal the answer to this question, however we cannot always be certain that what is conveyed to us is a real life representation of a persons gender, or rather an incognito account utilised to convey particular feelings or emotions, or indeed conceal elements of their personality or life that would be better off undisclosed. Gender itself, has always been a topic close to the forefront of the pragmatics of literature, as well as being a medium for channelling issues and themes that relate to the same concept. For examples, the idea of feminism, the role and status of women in the class structure, both politically and socially.

Jane Eyre# was written in eighteen forty seven by Charlotte Bronte. From my experience of reading this novel I feel there are many instances when Bronte’s gender is detectable. Firstly, it is important to point out that the novel is written in the first person narrative from a female perspective, it is an example of Romanism in terms of its generic classification; this, as opposed to say realist fiction, deals with an obvious character/author relationship, placing much more emphasis on subjective expression as opposed to an external reality. This therefore, perhaps allows us the insight that the character may reflect some authorial views. For example

women are supposed to be vary calm generally but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as their brothers do... ...It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex

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This is a representation of Bronte’s views towards men and the role of women in society being conveyed through Eyre. I feel that this is a predominant passage in revealing the author’s gender from the text because it is such a perfuse attack upon men and their ways. This then leads us into all kinds of debates and issues.

First and foremost, it patents the view that women are inferior to men, not only in their social class but also in their nature. We can clearly see that this notion infuriates Bronte, simply because of her decreeing response ‘women feel just as men feel’ . When she also mentions the ‘exercising of faculties‘, she is referring to fact that men get better educational opportunities and get to express themselves through their lifestyle and their work, to which Bronte suggests that women are limited solely to making puddings‘. These ideas of female and male equality were ambitious and novel concepts given the social historical time frame in which the novel was written. These views are the very essence of feminist literature and the basis of feminist theory.

Other signposts to the gender of the author can be drawn from the text if a deconstructionist lens is applied, taking into account the semantics and the lexical choices that are proficient. Semantic fields such as love are conveyed via lexis such as ‘heart’, ‘soul’ and ’compassion’. This was a traditional concept addressed by female writers of this time. Therefore, possibly revealing details towards the gender of the author, although lacking substance other than the general stereotyping of the themes women wrote about. The irony is that this comment itself would be the very essence of the feminist notion that Bronte was rebelling against. This idea that women are a predictable entity confined to expectations that are placed upon them. So the idea of the gender of the author has again raised volatile issues referring to the role of women.

The second novel I will refer to is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein#. This novel was published marginally earlier to the prior; eighteen eighteen. This novel again, has a first person narrative, this time from a male perspective; Walton, Doctor Frankenstein and in the later stages, the monster himself. This is a contrast to Jane Eyre as we here have a cross gender narrative/author concept. Also, the predominant difference here is the fact that there is little to no evidence of the authors gender, a direct contrast with Jane Eyre. That is not to say that I am insinuating that merely because you have a female author conveyed through a male voice that the identity of the author becomes shrouded. The prior point seems to immediately suggest that perhaps this is an example of realist fiction, yet this is not the case. It is a gothic novel with an unfamiliar structure; beginning as an epistolary and then progressing to the first person narratives.

One of the main reasons that it is so difficult to detect the authors gender with this piece is mainly concerned with the themes it addresses. It is of a predominantly masculine concepts. The notions of death and horror, central to the gothic era were traditionally written about by male authors. This could instantly revert back to the feminist argument, but the fact is that Shelley was a pioneer in her field of literature. The idea of a female talking/writing about such concepts at this time would completely subvert the expectations of the readers of the novel, given its social historical context. This point does appear somewhat tenuous but in order for Shelley to be taken seriously as a writer, I believe that concealing her gender was critical to the success of the novel. This was perhaps the reason why the original publication of Frankenstein was done anonymously, and popular public opinion, seconded famously by Sir Walter Scott, presumed that Percy Shelley, Mary’s estranged husband, to be the proprietor of the novel. This was a truth settled only years later, perhaps after authors such as Bronte had began to subvert expectations and question readers’ preconceptions.

Building on from my previous illustrations about prejudice, perhaps another issue that makes it difficult to detect the authors gender refers to her age. When the final publication of Frankenstein was released, Shelley was scarcely eighteen. Again, taking the social historical angle, this was an era where the youth were seen as inferior and their judgements were taken lightly. Adulthood, at this time, began at twenty one, so perhaps this was another critical element that had to be considered if Frankenstein was to be considered as a plausible work of fiction was the masking of her age.

Examples from the text to support these notions again come from the lexical choices and the semantic fields.

Like one, on a lonesome road who, doth walk in fear and dread, and, having once turned round, walks on, and turns no more his head; because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread

As we can see from examining lexical choices such as ‘lonesome’, ‘fear’, ‘dread’, ‘frightful’ and ‘fiend’ all of which appear in just two and a half lines, it is obvious that novel is creating an ambience of horror and unrest. The long, drawn-out phonetics of ‘lonesome’ in particular only seem to add to this effect. Sure this kind of lexis and imagery is apart of the Gothic generic expectations, but conforming to the expectations helps to conceal her identity as she doesn’t stand out as being profusely different which reverts back to the reason why the public and Sir Walter Scott originally thought that this novel was written by a man, possibly, because they would have had no reason to question whether or not it was a man, not only because the novel itself was devoid of evidence, but also because no other women were doing what she was doing at this time.

The two texts could not be more different in the ways the respective authors approach the notion of ground breaking literature. I believe the critical reason that Shelley was so restrained about revealing her identity was because the idea of non-conformity had not manifested itself in society at this early stage and the ‘ism’ that is feminism was a non-existent idea at this time. For these reasons, and to ensure the success of her work, Shelley, perhaps wisely opted to disguise her gender, this way, it guaranteed that she would by taken seriously in the literature world; seen as being on par with the male authors of the time. As I investigated previously, Shelley achieved this through several ways, predominantly the lexical semantic/choices. Transversely, Bronte had no such reserves about her novel. She had clear opinions that she reflected through her main title characters speech and experiences. The lexis used by Jane Eyre, is so much different and in some cases, quite obviously gives clear impressions that it is written by a female author. The whole ambience and imagery is contrasting to Frankenstein, this because it does not need to be reserved about addressing ideas that do not necessarily have male approval. As is evident, quite prevalently from many of these points raised in this essay, is the fact that the gender of the author raises all kinds of issues relating to the sexes, from discrimination to modern feminism. Also, in conclusion to the point I raised in my introduction about whether or not it is possible to tell the gender of any author, merely from the words on the page, the only plausible answer is no. If it were, then Shelley’s work would never have passed for a mans for so long, in fact, if it did not, it is quite possible that Frankenstein would not be the popular classic that it is so fondly thought of in the modern era.

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