Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Using females, using feminism

by Laura Pedersen

After a full semester and a half of the year-long Humanities Sequence (Western thought’s greatest hits from Homer to Nietzsche) I’ve accustomed myself to a certain level of misogyny in the texts we read in the course. Accept? No. Coexist with? Uncomfortably.

But it’s not the authors that have been bothering me recently. It’s the commentators.

Harold Bloom’s introduction to Paradise Lost was easily the seventh to suggest that the author of the work was a feminist. Plato was a feminist (sometimes you have to squint, but it’s there…). Cervantes was a feminist. But Milton? The man who writes an Eve who is literally second tier to Adam, an Eve who is foolish and narcissistic even before falling to temptation, and who defers her opinion time and time again to Adam? Only Adam is permitted a direct relationship with God; Eve must go though Adam to develop a relationship with the divine. Their reciprocal desires for love as control and submission to control starts to resemble a mindset present in abusive relationships.

So why is Milton a feminist?

Bloom claims it is because he has Eve step up to the plate and take the blame for corrupting humanity. This act matures her, he says, by expanding her role in the story. In doing so, she leaves for all the females who follow her an equal portion of the respect and significance her act of humility wins for her.

Paraphrase: women win respect by accepting the blame. Women, once again, are taught to own society’s expectations of them.

This is no feminism from my point of view.

I appreciate that so many scholars have attempted to address the issue of gender inequality in the texts they write about and are thinking in new and provocative patterns about the issue. Some of them even strike gold; the claim for Cervantes’ feministic presentation of women is entirely justifiable.

What I do not appreciate is having feminism used as a kind of ornament to embellish an essay that seeks to define the work in question as ahead of its time or remarkably modern. Western literature spends enough time manipulating and subjugating female characters; let’s not have that same manipulation applied by today’s scholars to a movement trying to undo what centuries of misogynistic writing helped make possible.


At March 26, 2009 at 9:47 AM , Blogger echomikeromeo said...

This is how I deal with Eve, though I've only read as far as Book IV, so I don't know how this would impact the rest of the poem. But:

The way I see it, Edenic innocence is really lame. The sickening goody-goodiness of Adam and Eve (Adam is pretty lame too) is set up to be smashed to bits by Satan, who is really the coolest character, with the best lines. I'm hoping that the Fall will help Eve get some ideas into her head that don't consist solely of wifely submission, because it seems to me like sin (as Milton presents it) is all about learning to think for yourself. You know?


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