As an English-literature major, the one thing I have become most passionate in is learning about the world and the people in it through texts. I went into my freshman year at Pacific Lutheran University undecided in what I wanted to study, I was interested in either a career in journalism or teaching English. In the fall of my sophomore year at PLU I took an English class taught by Lisa Marcus called “Women Writers and the Body Politic.” I told Professor Lisa on the first day of class that her course would either count as my Literature requirement to graduate, or that it would help me decide if I should declare as in English-literature major. The class instantly had me hooked, and thanks to Lisa, the books we read, and the discussions we had, I’ve loved studying literature ever since.
In taking Lisa Marcus’ course “Women Writers and the Body Politic,” I discovered that there is much more to literature than just my high school Shakespeare class. In looking back at the classes I’ve taken and the work I’ve done since this course, I noticed that Lisa’s class influenced me more than I knew at the time. I believe “Women Writers and the Body Politic” became my literary analysis foundation, for as I continued on in the English-literature major I routinely brought—what I now know is called—a feminist lens to texts. I will soon show examples from my own work in various English classes where I unintentionally was drawn to, sympathized with, or advocated for, female characters. But first, I must explain what exactly a feminist critical lens is. Only last semester did I learn from Lois Tyson’s book Critical Theory Today that, “broadly defined, feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforces or undermines the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (80). I’ve found myself constantly asking questions that revolve around female characters, about the relationships they form, the injustices they face, or simply their personalities, yet it wasn’t until recently that I could identify why these questions held my interest. I now know that I’ve been drawn to this lens because of how much myself and others can gain from it. By analyzing literature with a feminist lens and then turning that analysis into writing, we begin to take steps in advocating for change. What many people don’t know is that literature is a space where change does happen, and I can say that because it happened for me. I will show you specific examples in my own writing where I go from reading to analyzing and finally to writing, which all help in building on new understandings about topics that I would not have discovered without the necessary discipline of literature.
One example where feminist theory and advocacy coexist is in one of my papers written for a class on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In my essay titled “Adam’s Response to Eve’s Dream,” I essentially contend that Adam, not Eve, is at fault for the fall in the Garden of Eden. Again, it wasn’t until rereading this essay that I saw how apparent a feminist lens was used. I explain that Adam heavily relies on reason and does not see the power in Eve’s fancy, which is her emotions/imagination. I defend Eve in my paper saying, “by only using reason to convince Eve that no evil can come from her dream, Adam puts both of them at risk of falling. He does not consider whether reason may ever come second in the hierarchical order of faculty psychology” (Wilson, 2). Both patriarchy and hierarchy are significantly discussed in feminist theory, for women have fallen below in the hierarchal order, as we can see here, since the beginning of time. Paradise Lost characterizes Adam as a logical being and Eve, who has dreams and desires, as a fanciful being. In this essay I argue that it is Adam’s fault for not giving Eve’s fancy more merit.
In addition to critically analyzing language, literature is an interdisciplinary study that encourages us to use other disciplines. In this paper I examined Adam and Eve’s fall alongside faculty psychology, which is “the idea that the mind is separated into faculties, or sections, and that each of these faculties are assigned to certain mental tasks” (Wikipedia). In my paper I explain that “Adam assures Eve by saying, “But know that in the soul / Are many lesser faculties that serve / Reason as chief; among these Fancy next / Her office holds” (Wilson, 2). Combining this with a feminist lens allows me to challenge Adam’s authority of reason by contending that (Eve’s) fancy is a necessary facet and must be taken seriously, for after all, it is Eve’s fancy—her desire to explore—that causes her to eat the forbidden fruit.
Broadly speaking, it’s an accepted fact that Eve ate the fruit which caused Adam and Eve to fall. However, by critically analyzing Paradise Lost I was able to argue that Eve shouldn’t be blamed for the fall, for Adam explicitly stated that fancy is inferior to reason. Though I might hold my own separate personal feelings about the story of Genesis in the Bible, that doesn’t interfere with what I’ve learned from writing this paper. My literary analysis brought me to a new perspective on Eve and women’s fanciful thinking in general, it taught me that a common trope like “Eve ate the apple” can be refuted. Doing the work to make meaningful arguments about literature is a form of advocating for someone like Eve, a person that has been oppressed by the world’s blame. Without literature, I would have gone my whole life without having a reason to question the story of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, but because of literature, I am able to build on my new understanding of Eve and explore other ways historic (and present women) are misrepresented.
In a very different way than Paradise Lost, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved also urged me to defend and contend for female characters. We are lucky to have female authors like Morrison who challenge readers to think about hard things, particularly in Beloved this being slavery and motherhood. In my essay “Owning in the Midst of Being Owned in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” I was eager to write about black slave mothers’ ability to take ownership of their children while being enslaved to their owner. One of the most famous and discussed moments in the story is when Sethe, a mother and former slave, decides to kill her baby. Again, I find myself defending her actions in my paper and explaining the incident in a way that sympathizes with and empowers Sethe. I write, “slavery owned her body, her milk, and her children. When the four horsemen came, Sethe was faced with the choice to own her child or return her to the ownership of a slave holder” and in the end, Sethe makes the bold choice to free her child through death (Wilson, 6). Using the tools I’ve learned from closely reading literature, I was able to articulate that Sethe, a merely powerless mother, made a miraculously powerful decision in setting her baby free from inevitable enslavement.
Without a feminist lens or guidance from my literature professors, I wouldn’t have known where to begin with untangling Sethe’s choice to kill her baby. Fortunately, I’ve learned to read carefully, and the patterns and themes I uncovered in Belovedallowed me to make an argument about owning in the midst of being owned. One pattern I point out in this paper is how “Sethe’s mentality does not shift” from when she leaves Sweet Home to when she kills her baby, for “in reference to escaping Sweet Home, Sethe tells Paul D., “I did it…I got us all out…up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own” Similarly, when explaining the “crawling-already?” baby’s death, Sethe says to him, “I stopped him…I took and put my babies where they’d be safe”” (Wilson, 5-6). By digging deep into a canonical text like Belovedand offering my own argument on what Morrison is teaching us, I gain sympathy for black slave mothers, like Sethe, who were faced with making unimaginable choices. Sethe took on the responsibility to advocate for her helpless child in the same way literature makes me want to advocate for misrepresented individuals.
Without literature, how would I know to advocate for characters like Eve and Sethe? I was not raised in a diverse environment, nor was I taught the basis of feminism and why it’s important. That’s why literature is both exciting and meaningful to me, for it begs us to question and make arguments about texts, which in turn, can (often) alter our thinking. While a business major might learn how to run a marketing campaign, I’ve learned to be a critical thinker, which in turn, allows me to critically think about the injustices of the world and begin to address them. Literature might not come across as the most active form of advocacy compared to signing petitions or marching in a protest. However, I argue that my own experience in literature is proof of how active it is. Analyzing literary texts is something we can continuously do, thus we are continuously challenging ourselves to gain new perspectives, learn more, and advocate for injustices and those who are misrepresented in texts and in our world today.