How to Identify Feminism in Literature

Feminism is a concept that has frequented literary works for centuries. Sometimes it's fairly obvious; other times it's extremely subtle. Because identifying central ideas in literature is necessary for understanding, you'll need to be able to spot both. This article will guide you through the process.


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    Know about the time surrounding the book. Background research is often helpful in identifying themes in a story. What were the standards, expectations, and limitations for women when the piece was written? Readers of today may consider certain things normal when a century ago, they were frowned upon.
    • So a girl rejected a proposal from an unpleasant suitor, you might say. Who wouldn't? It will change your idea of the scene if you know that females couldn't inherit property at the time the book was written; the family is all sisters, so after their father's death, all property would go to a cousin, and they would have nothing. This girl's marriage would have provided her family with money and supported them, yet she still wouldn't marry for anything but love.
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    Look at female characters. How much attention or "screen time" do they get throughout the work? Is the story's focus a woman? (The woman need not even appear for this to be true; in a short story called "A Jury of Her Peers," for instance, a woman is the single focus of the story, yet she never once appears herself.) Look at characterization, as well. Is the character unusually independent for her time? Does she challenge the status quo?
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    Look at male-female interaction. You might imagine that a feminist work would have, say, a married couple equal in authority, or one where the woman presides over the man. But a feminist work could just as easily have a man who overpowers and mistreats a woman: often writers would talk about uncomfortable topics that no one else wanted to, such as abuse, in order to draw attention to injustices or problems in the real world. This likely applies to anything that appalls or offends you; writing does not become renowned literature by being offensive for the sake of it.
  4. 4
    Note loaded words and implications. Sometimes you'll need to look closely to understand an author's meaning. Compliments may veil bitterness; acceptance may veil condemnation. Some things to take note of include:
    • Allusions. A man is persistently pursuing a girl who does not want anything to do with him. Does the author consider this bad or wrong? Perhaps the man is compared to the cat in pursuit of the bird. The implications of this simile could be negative; a cat seeks only to kill a bird - thus there could be a subtext of danger or predation.
    • Loaded words. Look for words with subtexts. "Muscular" and "brutish" can mean almost the same thing literally, but the implication of "brutish" is decidedly negative. If a woman's husband is described as brutish, take it as a warning sign.
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    Put your information together. Is there enough pointing to feminism that you can come to that conclusion? None of these steps works on its own; they support one another. Consider how many different angles you have supporting the idea of feminism.

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Categories: Studying Literature