I finished reading Jane Eyre last week. I followed it with The Awakening. It turned out to be an interesting choice. If I were a literature professor I’d want to teach a class on proto feminist literature and I’d use both of these novels. In fact, I think I’m going to continue with this theme and find more 19th century novels with female protagonists and find out where they fit on the feminist sphere.
I was originally offended by Jane Eyre and her characterizations. I found her meek and subservient in both her emotional and physical life. I found the orphan-governess-princess plotline to be rather condescending. I immediately saw an opportunity for a contemporary re-do of the story where roles are reversed, reorganized and reinterpreted. What would the story sound like as John Eyre? Would the essays and opinions on the novel be as glowing? Would there still be a consistent affirmation that this orphan-governess-princess is the very embodiment of strength and triumph? Or would it alter the perspective so much that the character would seem trivial, at worst, and ordinary at best?
The Awakening, on the other hand, would seem to me, to have the exact same response had it been written of man or woman. Either way, the deep spiritual and social questioning this book uncovers is unsettling. When it was written in 1899 it was considered near pornography, and I imagine the response would be quite similar in 2012. The difference is that now it’s not about the explicit sexual content, it’s the explicit spiritual content that still remains largely unspoken in polite conversation. It examines the unexamined. This novel opens a window that is as nailed shut, painted over, blacked out and boarded up as ever. In fact, I found more similarities in the social mores of the 19th century south than differences to our current American landscape. The descriptions of teas and elegant dinner parties could be transcriptions of this season’s Housewives of Beverly Hills. Would you believe the conversation invariably includes home renovations, food preparation, marital discord and of course, fine fabric? While Keeping Up with the Kardashians is our most popular expression of matriarchy to simultaneously deplore and delight in, The Awakening offers as much enviable material to emulate. I’ll admit that I have already started planning to make a gold and silver cake. I’ll forego the roses, lace and satin table setting since I’ll only be serving my regular party of five.
We’re all the same. The best novels remind me of that. The worst advertising makes me forget. The universal truths offer far more than the obvious differences our economy capitalizes on. If we focused on these truths, who’s financial net worth would grow? It’s only the attempts to service our apparent deficits that create monetary wealth. No wonder we’re bombarded with them daily. I guess I’m more interested in spiritual wealth. It comes from an entirely different source. Religion works for some, art and literature work for me. Music provides the emotional backdrop for all.
The next question is what a proto-feminist novel written by a man might seem like. Ideas anyone?