A History of Submissive Women in Literature

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The feminine gender has long been one that has been repressed throughout history and forced to acclimate itself to a world dominated by men. Although major improvements have been made in the strife for equality, this continues to be a man’s world. In the short stories “The Chrysanthemums” and “A Rose for Emily,” as well as in the drama “A Doll’s House,” the protagonists are all frustrated women who are unfulfilled with their subservient lives. Partly imposed upon them by their setting’s historical and societal norms, they choose to either do something about it or continue to internalize their dissatisfaction.

When analyzing these pieces of literature, it becomes quite obvious which of the protagonists fall under the category of those who decided to do something about their discontent and those who did not. It is also quite interesting that those who changed their situations to their advantage were both set in the same historical timeframe, unlike the ones who did not. Both Emily Grierson from “A Rose for Emily” and Nora Helmer from “A Doll’s House” manifested this dissatisfaction with their lives and chose to challenge their oppressors. On the other hand, Elisa Allen from “The Chrysanthemums,” chose to continue living her submissive existence.

In Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” Emily Grierson, the protagonist, is one of these women who decides to change her fate from one of submission, due to her gender and the roles imposed on it by society, to one of control and power. In her case, though, the decision to take the reigns in her own hands seems to have originated in her subconscious. Jack Scherting, who wrote an essay on this “subconscious” state, relates Emily’s situation to the Freudian concept of the “Oedipus complex.” He writes, “Emily’s father had prevented her from maturing sexually in the normal and natural way. Thus repressed, her sexual drives emerge in a tragic form-that is to say, in abnormal and unnatural behavior” (Scherting 400). Her psychotic action of murdering her lover and keeping him to decompose in her bedroom must have been her form of rebellion toward her father’s submissive treatment towards her. She had not been allowed to become a woman in her father’s care. In the story, the narrator (townspeople) say, “We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had been robbed her, as people will” (Faulkner 31).

Emily Grierson was not the only woman who rejected the societal norms imposed on her and her gender. It has been a widely accepted fact that the women of pre-Civil War America were not the same as those who emerged from the ruins in 1865. According to Alexis Girardin Brown, “Historians created a new concept to define the women in the 1880’s who had achieved so much strength and independence during the war and its aftermath: the ‘New Woman’” (8). This “new woman” concept is what eventually gave rise to the women’s suffrage movement and feminism in America (Brown 8). Emily Grierson was most certainly one of these “new women.” Her story and what she eventually did to secure her new found independence could be said to almost be justified by Brown’s perspective of what was going on with women at that point in history. She writes, “This newly acquired position of provider and protector led many women to question the sphere in which they had been raised. Though few women actively sought these new roles, they had little choice but to accept them” (Brown 6). Emily was one that completely refused the “sphere in which she had been raised” (Brown 6). She went against everything her father, her oppressor, had told her and taught her and got herself a man at any cost.

Another woman protagonist who also made the decision to change her role from a compliant housewife is Nora Helmer, from Henrik Ibsen’s drama, “A Doll’s House.” Her choice to leave her husband at the end of the play was a...
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