Perceptions of Women in Literature
The ideological male and female gender roles determined collectively by society have changed drastically throughout history in the United States and overseas. Some universal ideals still exist but people tend to possess their own individual ideals and perceptions of gender roles. While some long-standing gender stereotypes still linger, most men and women have deviated from previously accepted roles. It may never be possible to achieve absolute gender equality because of varying personal opinions but there is noticeably less division than in the past. Stereotypes are however still prevalent in literature. “Dry September” by William Faulkner and “Let Them Call It Jazz” by Jean Rhys explore perceptions of unmarried women and their standing in society. Unlike the short stories, August Wilson’s play Fences considers the dynamics of marriage and familial responsibilities. The plots of these three works may be incredibly dissimilar but careful analysis of the female protagonists reveals connections between the women’s gender roles.
Miss Minnie Cooper, the female protagonist in Faulkner’s short story “Dry September”, is a nearly 40-year-old unmarried woman living with her invalid mother and elderly aunt. She has no occupation or hobbies to occupy her time and her social standing in Jefferson, Mississippi has been steadily declining since her schoolmates began settling down. Minnie has difficulty coming to terms with aging and renouncing her youthful rituals; she refuses to acknowledge she is losing ground until she hears former classmates’ whispers at a party. The girls she grew up with got married, purchased homes, and had children as was expected in southern culture. Faulkner, a native to the south, drew from the morals and precedents of his own culture to create the stereotypical southern belles in “Dry September”. Minnie defies Faulkner’s female stereotype starting with her decision not to marry; her non-traditional relationship with a widowed banker reinforces her position as an outsider in the community. The town largely refers to her as “poor Minnie” because in the 1920s and 30s, when the story is set, most people believed there must be something wrong with an adult woman whose never been married. The reader gets the sense that her unconventionality is not something she embraces or even chooses; she longs to lead the life of a traditional Jefferson girl but no man has ever showed a steady interest in her. Minnie develops an unfavorable reputation not only because she has broken steadfast southern tradition but also because she hopelessly yearns to belong. The townspeople are weary when “the rumor, the story, whatever it is” about Minnie being raped by a local African-American boy, Willy Mayes, spreads through town because they think she is so unbelievably desperate for male attention it is possible she initiated the encounter. When racism was rampant in the south it was unheard of to question a white person’s integrity regarding an interracial conflict . Even though a group of barbaric white men ultimately lynched a potentially innocent black man, the fact that there was any hesitation in the matter goes to show how disreputable Minnie had become. The men who murdered Willy Mayes did not attack him to compensate for Minnie’s alleged suffering; the men seized the opportunity to reaffirm the superiority and power of the white population in Jefferson, regardless of the truth behind the tale. The men also wanted to publicize their efforts to protect their wives, mothers, and sisters even in the absence of immediate danger. The men’s violent method of protection emphasizes an aggressive, dominant male stereotype which in turn portrays women as fragile and helpless; it is insinuated that women are weaker than men therefore they need a man’s protection.
The main character in Jean Rhys’ short story “Let Them Call It Jazz” is a societal outcast akin to Miss Minnie Cooper in “Dry...
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