Feminism in Fiction

This look at feminism in post-1900 literature has two timely inspirations: Margaret Atwood and…Donald Trump.

I just read The Testaments, Ms. Atwood’s excellent 2019 sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And sore loser Trump is about to (hopefully) leave the White House this Wednesday, January 20.

Trump has been rightly criticized for many things during his dumpster fire of a presidency. The lies, the criminality, the incompetence, the cruelty, the blatant racism, the homophobia, and more. So, it can get a bit lost just how misogynist Trump and his ilk have also been.

There are the more than 20 credible pre-presidency rape and other sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, the crudely sexist remarks, the pathetically few women he named to top administration positions, etc. Of course, amid Trump’s toxic machismo, the females in Trump’s mostly male orbit have been awful in their own right — including wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, former education secretary Betsy DeVos, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and others. Complicit, complicit, complicit.

The fictional Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments feels like an extreme (?) version of the far-right Trump/far-right Republican/far-right evangelical vision for America. Atwood’s authoritarian fictional republic has made women second-class citizens — stripping the older ones of their former professions, not allowing the younger ones to have intellectual jobs, forcing teen girls into marriages with much older men, and other patriarchal outrages that of course include Gilead’s handmaid system of child-bearers with no rights. There’s also all kinds of corruption and violence. One of Atwood’s accomplishments in both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments is creating unforgettable women characters who either fight against the system (overtly or subtly) or come to grudgingly accept it (under duress). Also impressive is that Atwood is near the top of her writing game in the sequel despite her turning 80 the year it was published. My only significant criticism of The Testaments is that its nail-biting conclusion is too short.

Anyway, I’m limiting this piece to post-1900 literature with feminist elements because I covered many earlier novels with such elements in this 2018 post. There are many novels I can discuss, but I’ll focus on just a few.

The title alone of Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen tells the reader that the 1974 novel will have feminist aspects. Its protagonist, Adah, is a smart and resourceful woman who battles sexism from society and her husband in an effort to get the education she desires and do the work she wants to do. She moves from Nigeria to England, but both places are frequently not hospitable for ambitious women. Racism is in the mix as well.

Both sexism and racism are also faced by characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).

Women taking leadership roles is obviously a feminist thing, and we see that in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. That novel’s leader is Lauren Oya Olamina, whose take-charge personality is sorely needed in a society that has crumbled due to climate change, huge economic inequality, and corporate greed. (Do those three mega-problems ring a bell? This prescient science-fiction book was published in 1993.) Lauren even founds a new religion of sorts!

Eliza Sommers, the Chilean protagonist in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, goes to mid-19th-century California against her parents’ wishes and even spends much of the 1998 novel disguised as a man in order to live more freely.

Looking back at a 1910-published novel, Colette’s The Vagabond features music-hall dancer Renee Nere and the very familiar push-and-pull on her life between work and romance.

There are also feminist novels that at least partly focus on the right of women to make independent decisions about sexual matters — with two examples being Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian-focused Rubyfruit Jungle. Both, coincidentally, published in 1973. Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) also deals compellingly with a lesbian relationship, albeit more-closeted in this case.

Women working in traditionally “male” professions is another mark of feminist novels, with Ms. Flagg offering a great example of that with the women World War II pilots in 2013’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. (I wish “Women” rather than “Girl” was in that title, but “Girl” might have been used ironically.) There’s also a memorable Russian female WWII pilot in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress (2019).

Plus Claire Fraser of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991-launched Outlander series of time-travel novels is a medical doctor in both the 1960s (when that was relatively unusual for a woman) and during the 1700s (when that virtually never happened).

Women having control over their own bodies is certainly an aspect of feminism, meaning novels that sympathetically look at abortion fit this post’s theme. One example is John Irving’s The Cider House Rules from 1985 — the same publication year as The Handmaid’s Tale.

Your favorite 20th- or 21st-century novels with feminist elements?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my town’s reaction to the Trump-incited white riot at the U.S. Capitol building — is here.

The ’21 Club of Anniversaries for Famous Novels

Some well-known novels are reaching round-number anniversaries in 2021 — as in 25 years (published in 1996), 50 years (1971), 75 years (1946), 100 years (1921), 150 years (1871), and 200 years (1821).

I’ll mostly mention novels I’ve read, and a few I haven’t. Let’s begin…

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s rare foray into historical fiction, came out in 1996. It takes a gripping look at a 19th-century double murder in Canada — and how guilty or not the sentenced-to-life-in-prison Grace Marks was as an accomplice.

Hard to believe it was that long ago, but also published in 1996 was A Game of Thrones — the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series that later became a TV phenomenon. It’s the only novel I’ve read in the series, and I found it compelling after struggling a bit to get into it.

Among the notable ’96 novels I haven’t read are David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary.

A half-century ago, we had William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel The Exorcist — a widely read book turned into a smash-hit movie. Also Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which covers nearly a century of history through the eyes of an African-American woman — and also inspired a highly popular film, in that case for TV. Plus, E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, a thinly veiled retelling of the Rosenberg case from the vantage point of the couple’s children; Hunter S. Thompson’s riotous, semi-autobiographical Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Erich Maria Remarque’s posthumously published Shadows in Paradise.

Also in ’71 were John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, the first sequel to the Rabbit, Run novel I had mixed feelings about (a bit too much toxic masculinity); and Herman Wouk’s epic The Winds of War, which I haven’t read but I sure did like that author’s earlier The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar.

Memorable releases in 1946 — the birth year of despicable white-riot inciter Trump — included Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a novel about a Huey Long-like politician, rampant corruption, and more; Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, starring a 12-year-old tomboy; and Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. I’ve read the first two, not the third.

In 1921, parts of Marcel Proust’s opus In Search of Lost Time were released — as were L.M. Montgomery’s World War I-themed Rilla of Ingleside, one of the best Anne of Green Gables sequels; Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley’s somewhat-interesting debut novel; and Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Adams.

It was in 1871, 150 years ago, that George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch was published. Clearly her best book in terms of scope, characterizations, and social analysis — and you’ll rarely read a better dissection of troubled marriages. But I do think several of Eliot’s slightly less masterpiece-y novels — including The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda — pack an equal or greater emotional wallop.

Also released in 1871 were Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the memorable sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Henry James’ debut novel Watch and Ward (published by a magazine in 1871 but not in book form until 1878); and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men.

I haven’t read any 1821 novels, which included Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott and The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper — two authors whose other books I’ve liked a lot. But, hey, Fyodor Dostoevsky was born that year — and Madame Bovary writer Gustave Flaubert, too.

Any novels with round-number 2021 anniversaries you’d like to discuss? (Including those I mentioned and those I didn’t.)

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about parking, leaf blowers, the Georgia runoffs, Trump, and more — is here.

My Fiction-Blog Stats in a Stranger-Than-Fiction Year

Thanks so much, everyone, for reading my literature blog and posting thousands of interesting comments in 2020! 🙂 As the devastating months of COVID hopefully start to fade in the rearview mirror, I thought I’d do a statistical look-back today before returning to my usual fare next Sunday.

Last year, this 2014-launched blog had 28,825 views, 14,124 visitors (the most ever), 4,530 comments, and 3,401 likes. The number of followers reached 4,930.

The top-15 places where views came from were 1) the United States (15,845), 2) the United Kingdom (4,008), 3) India (1,661), 4) Australia (1,436), 5) Canada (912), 6) Spain (361), 7) Germany (348), 8) Kuwait (297), 9) China (270), 10) the Philippines (268), 11) France (227), 12) Finland (199), 13) Nigeria (153), 14) Italy (151), and 15) Pakistan (127). Plus 125 other countries, thanks in large part to the worldwide reach of the WordPress blog platform.

Surprisingly, the most-read post in 2020 was from 2018 — “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction.” Or maybe not so surprising, given the endless fascination with novels by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, Wilkie Collins, and others who created women protagonists who overtly or subtly defied the patriarchal norms of the 1800s.

Four of my five most-read 2020 posts had a sociopolitical bent: “Writers Who’ve Rightly Criticized the Far-Right Trump,” “When Novelists Display Intolerance,” “Wishing Trump’s Assault on the Post Office Were Fictional,” and “Racist Characters Bring the Hate to Some Literature.” Even though the majority of my lit posts are not sociopolitical.

The most-read 2020 piece that wasn’t sociopolitical? “The ’60s Live On. The 1860s, That Is” — which looked at the amazing group of novels published during that long-ago decade. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Great Expectations, and various other classics.

Lastly, even though this week’s piece is not my usual thematic post, I did want to mention that I just read and enjoyed Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared — recommended by two regular commenters here (Susan and Martina Ramsauer) and three people I know from outside this blog (Allia Zobel Nolan, LJ Anderson, and Larry Esteves). It’s an offbeat novel with a lots of humor and suspense, and it was eye-opening to see which real-life famous leaders centenarian protagonist Allan Karlsson encountered while in various countries during his younger years.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — a 2020 year-in-review — is here.