"What Soft-Cherubic Creatures– / These Gentlewoman are / One would as soon assault a Plush–/Or violate a Star– [. . .]" (186). Emily Dickinson wrote these words about the typical American woman of her era. She describes them as brittle, dainty, and above all, submissive. These refined ladies are at every social event and without a hair out of place. Though this is a description of that archetypal woman of this time, it is not, however, an example of every American woman. Most writers of this time created women as society portrayed them. They wrote them as dainty "cherubic creatures" that could not think on their own. There were those few writers who took a chance with their female characters and gave them something to stand for and minds of their own. These writers were revolutionaries in literature. There were also the writers who took these stereotypes and revealed what happened to women who were pigeonholed into the roles. These different views of female characters in American literature are what make up the scope of this era.
Several writers of this time stuck to the typical portrayal of women during the era of the Industrial Revolution. One of these writers was Henry James. In his story "The Beast in the Jungle," he presents May Bartram as a delicate creature whose only purpose in life seems to be taking care of her friend John Marcher. She wastes the good part of her life taking care of this man. She could have lived a wonderful life on her own, but she does not. She obviously cares for him but will not dare approach him with her love. A lady of this time was to be quiet, respectful, and wait for the man to approach her. "So while they grew older together she did watch with him, and so she let this association give shape and colour to her own existence[. . .] and behaviour had become for her, in the social sense a false account of herself" (441). As May grows older, she slowly loses her sense of self and her personality. This loss of self was common to women of this time. They were not to have opinions or character. They were to sit quietly and let the men do the serious talking. A woman of the twenty-first century would not stand for this kind of behavior. Women of today’s society would not wait around for a man to realize what is right in front of him. They have lives to think about and careers to plan. However, the women of the nineteenth century had certain roles to play. They could not speak their minds as men could do. A lady’s role was to be seen and not heard. James portrays May Bartram as the typical obedient woman of her time.
Another writer who depicted women as society dictated that they should be was Mark Twain. In "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," Twain tells of a man who tries to corrupt a self-proclaimed, incorruptible town, using the Richards family as the starting point. The wife, Mrs. Richards, is an example of how Twain uses women characters. Mrs. Richards is very submissive to her husband. "‘I wish Richard would come home and take it [the supposed bag of gold they are given] to the bank [. . .]’" (313). Mrs. Richards is saying she has to wait for her husband to get home to do anything about the money. She plays the typical doting, docile wife. Twain rarely uses women as major characters in his works because he does not feel that they are important enough to affect the outcome of a major event. Women in marriages today are not as subservient. Marriages tend to be more of a partnership that a dictatorship. Men during this time thought that a woman’s role in a marriage was to cook, clean, and raise the children. Women in a nineteenth-century marriage, like Mrs. Richards, were not equal to their husbands. They had no power in their marriages.
Another female character that is a typical example of this period is the wife in Ambrose Bierce’s "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The woman seems to be patiently waiting for her husband, Peyton Farquhar, to come home. "His wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him" (412). Her husband has just escaped death, and she is greeting him as if she is glad he has gotten home for dinner. The woman is artificial in appearance and action. Like a model, she does her wifely duty for her husband. Bierce as a writer indicates the insignificance of women in society by using the wife as a minor character. Bierce himself once said that female meant "one of the opposing or unfair, sex" (413). Even in today’s society, women have to struggle to find a place in the world and in their marriages. The women of the nineteenth century were not thought of as equal to men. They did not have any of the privileges that men did. The woman in the story is an example of a woman in an unequal marriage.
One writer who gave a female character a larger role was William Dean Howells. In "Editha," Howells wrote an entire story about a woman. Though that was an accomplishment, the voice that he gave American women was not a favorable one. In the story, Editha uses her love for her fiancé, George, to urge him to fight in the Spanish-American War. She threatens to take her love away if George does not do his patriotic duty to his country and go to war. "But the man I marry must love his country first of all [. . .]" (363). Not wanting to be out of her favor, George reluctantly goes off to war and is killed. The manner in which Editha acts in this particular piece is degrading to women everywhere. She uses her emotion to get what she wants. She immaturely sends her beloved to fight a battle that he has no business fighting. The way she talks about his fighting for her love is idealistic and unrealistic. She has storybook ideas about love and does not realize that real life is different. She thinks she is perfect, and she expects everyone else to be also. Howells is telling the audience that nothing is perfect, so one should not expect anything to be. "Editha" is particularly degrading to the women writers that are trying to give woman a voice for the future.
The voice that takes women’s literature in a new direction is Edith Wharton. In "Roman Fever," Wharton tells a story of Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade. The women are reminiscing about their time in Rome while watching their own daughters making the same mistakes they did. This complicated, soap opera-like story portrays women as powerful, competent people who have minds of their own. These women are capable of the treachery of which soap opera divas only dream. While Grace Ansley is merely secretive and stealthy, Alida Slade is deceitful, calculating, and most of all, smart. Though this may sound as if Wharton is portraying the characters negatively, she is actually revealing to her male counterparts that women have brains. They are capable of much more than men writers give them credit for. Other writers portray women as meek and pure, but Wharton reveals that women are just as clever and shrewd as their male counterparts. They are brash, blunt, and boastful. This type of behavior was scandalous during this time. Female writers gained considerable popularity in this era. Writers like Wharton show that women writers are forces to be reckoned with.
One woman that portrays the dangers of placing women in these types of stereotypical roles was Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator describes how a room of yellow wallpaper slowly drives a woman insane. Though she is not mentally ill at the beginning of the story, she is driven to insanity because of the way her husband treats her. He treats her as one would treat a child. He never listens to her, and he ignores her. This lack of attention is what drives her over the edge. Another reason that the woman is driven mad is that she is bored. Her husband will not allow her to write. "I must put this [the journal] away—he hates to have me write a word" (715). Writing is the only joy she has in the world, and her husband takes it away from her because he says it will tire her out. The real reason he does not want her to write is that writing requires her to think. If she starts to think, then he cannot control her anymore. She has nothing to do but stare at the walls. It is while staring at the walls that she notices the patterns in the wallpaper that make her go crazy. Women writers during this time faced a similar problem. They were attempting to write on unsuitable topics in a male-dominated profession. The male writers felt threatened by the woman writers because they could not control them. That is the reason that for the lack of female writers during this time. Finally, Gilman was attempting to address the way that women were portrayed in society. With more and more woman moving from the family-worked farms to the men-dominated cites, there was little place for women writers and workers.
In conclusion, though the majority of writers wrote the women of the era as passive and delicate, just as society viewed women, there were many other portrayals of women during this time. These roles range from demure princess to the deceitful diva. What accounts for these different depictions are the writers’ views of a woman in society. Writers were able to show that the typical woman of the time was not always so typical underneath.
"Cherubic Creatures" was written by Stephanie Chambers in Spring 2001. At the time of this writing, Chambers was a senior majoring in Communication Arts with a minor in English. She is the recipient of the Newcomer Award for Shorter College’sThe Periscope Newspaper, and the Georgia Press Scholarship Award. She belongs to Phi Theta Kappa, Sigma Tau Delta Alpha Chi.