Gender In Literature

Nonfiction by | June 28, 2009

The story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” expresses how women are defined as “the other” and men as the powerful sex.

Attics do not house humans. They are wasted space. Women are considered half monsters — and they are wasted. A woman inhabits the attic; literally and metaphorically, she becomes a madwoman, both as a writer and a character.

The fact is, Nathaniel Hawthorne is male; and men don’t glorify women.

Nathaniel Hawthorne did not directly say that Georgina is a monster. Only by the way she is presented in the story will it then become clear that literature had always been confined to male writers and male characters. Georgina’s birthmark embodies the unforgivable flaws of the female body and her position as a woman. She is not any different from Dr. Frankenstein’s monster; and the only way to kill the female monster is to destroy male literature.

Georgina is portrayed as a passive character overpowered by her own husband, while Aylmer is a man of science who represents knowledge and invention. Georgina is depicted as a woman who will do anything to earn her husband’s love and fulfill her responsibility as a wife. Since a woman’s intellect is not for invention, she is merely placed in the house to practice domesticity. She even told Aylmer, “I know not what may be the cost to both of us to get rid of this fatal birthmark. Perhaps its removal may cause cureless deformity; or it may be the stain goes as deep as life itself.”

The reader is, thus, introduced to the fact that women are trained by the patriarchal society to become submissive wives and submit to the idea that men are in control — not the ones being controlled. Thus, there is this concept of mastering the “art of pleasing men”. Even when she was about to die, Georgina tried to be the sweet angel that she was expected be. “My poor Aylmer,” she repeated, with a more human tenderness, “you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly. Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer. Aylmer, dearest Aylmer, I am dying!”

Given this, the idea of women being selfless, a rather Christian concept, is then highlighted in the story. In literature, it appears to be a norm that the women characters are always the ones who must die and the protagonists must be the males.

Georgina’s birthmark signifies Aylmer’s insecurities. This reminds us of Freud’s castration complex in which the birthmark becomes the figure of a penis in the eyes of Aylmer – and, thus, he wants to remove the birthmark and have the power all to himself. Most male writers never consider writing as an act of women. This is, perhaps, because female authorship would mean female authority. Women, on the other hand, cannot get out of their shell being domesticated beings who, supposedly, have no right to invent and create another world. If a woman shows resistance, she becomes a madwoman in her society. It appears that only the men have the right to be creators.

Georgina becomes Aylmer’s failure because of the birthmark and her death, even when he was confident of his success.

Male writers write only for themselves. Therefore, women writers are the only ones who can write for women. To restate poet and activist Audre Lorde, only the oppressed could understand oppression, not the oppressors. A female writer must get out of the glass coffin or sleep for a thousand years and wait for the prince to kiss her. We’ve been sleeping for more than a thousand years. Perhaps it’s about to time that more women wake up and shake masculine literature.

Janelle Thea Sorroche is a professional bum who wants to spend the rest of her life eating green stuff. She can only write when she is hungry.

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