Feminist theme and its various manifestations
Trifle by Susan Glaspell and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates are highly symbolic stories that epitomizes the spirit of their respective period and contemporary society. Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” is another example of symbolism from the genre of poetry. Feminism and its various manifestations are the main subject matter of all. All these stories and poem take into account various feminist thematic expressions but their treatment of the subject is different and they utilize various literary devices to augment their viewpoints.
Glaspell’s work depicts influence of contemporary feminist thought that raised its voice against the male-female disparity and social injustice. Minnie Wright is the protagonist and focus point of the play. Glasspell has utilized the subtle literary technique i.e. although she is the major character; she has no voice or virtual presence in the play. Glasspell want to illustrate the triviality of women characters in the contemporary society that they have no say in their own matters.
Although Minnie’s emotions, motives, and her fate are the issue around which the play revolves, but she is never noticed in the play.
Connie’s romantic and fictitious idealism in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” manifest the emergence of American society from a war-trodden nation that was further afflicted with violence in the 1950s. Carol Oates has depicted that like Minnie, Connie is also afflicted with social compulsions and yearns for independence. But unlike Gaspells agenda of propagating a feminist agenda of gender discrimination, Oates illustrates the changing values and the socio-cultural milieu. Connie is preoccupied with fictitious thoughts. So both stories depict themes expression of their times and its socio-cultural trends.
Emily Dickenson’s poem symbolizes power and unconventional feminist urges on the art of the poetess. In this poem, Emily Dickinson finds an instrument adequate enough to render her need for fulfillment through absolute commitment to love’s service. Historically, it was written in age when American society was torn with civil war. The symbol that Emily Dickenson has used is an essence of an experience. It is quite obvious that a universal insight that the poet tries to express in not obtained merely by imaginative wandering, it is based on concrete experiences. Emily Dickinson presents the same insight into the historical experiences of her time. The very first stanza symbolizes the paradox of finding oneself through losing oneself. It is rendered in the poem by one word: identity is claimed when someone claimed the gun as her own. The American civil war was also the process of finding ones own identity by losing ones own identity. The internal rivalries and petty identities were to be removed to achieve a national reconciliation. This national reconciliation ultimately brought the national identity. Although this process was on halt and stayed “in corners” for many decades till a day came. Now they “roam in Sovereign Woods”. This poem has also captivated the feminist attention who has given it a new evaluative dimension. Some critics are of the view that thorough this poem, Emily has tried to present a woman that she was not primarily in the second half of the 19th century whereas other feminist critics holds the view that poem totally negates the feminine qualities and the main metaphor considers “everything [that]”woman” is not: cruel not pleasant, hard not soft, emphatic not weak, one who kills not one who nurtures.” (Bennet, 1986, p.132)
In an extension to the feminism, these works illustrate the pathos and miseries of women life. Both these short stories takes these pathos into account but scarcely whereas Dickenson’s poem expresses the agonies of a female poet that was restricted by her family and society to a narrow life devoid of any intellectual and/or literary independence comprehensively. The poem starts with an individual quest for his/her identity but it changed into a capitalized “We”. Now the concern of the poetess is no more individualistic and sentimental, rather it has been transformed into something collective, societal and concrete. The identities have been mingled up with each other. Both owner and the “owned” perform the same masculine activities. They are no more individual but become a part of the larger whole i.e. society. But Oates and Glaspell concerns seem individual.
Main themes are supported by effective use of symbolism by all three writers. Both Glasspell and Oates use symbolism as a valid literary device to convey thematic messages. For example Glasspell uses bird as a symbol of friendly alternative. It is toll of escapism from the real life. For Minnie, the bird was a “child-substitute for the solitary Minnie; the canary’s voice was to displace the silence of a coldly authoritarian husband and replace the sounds of the unborn children” (Makowsky, 1962, p. 62). Makowsky further illustrates that “through the traditional literary metaphor of the bird’s song as the voice of the soul, the women acknowledge that John Wright not only killed Minnie’s canary, but her very spirit”. (p. 62) But Carol Oates uses music, dating and loitering and romantic preoccupation of these phenomenons as effective replacement for Connie. Dickenson’s poem begins with a brilliant conceit. Fused from the ambiguous abstraction of life and the explicit concretion of loaded gun, it expresses the charged potential of the human being who remains dormant until “identified” into a conscious vitality. And after hat identification, we observe the start of a new poem i.e. the start of a new life.
Although all protagonists incarnate the feminist attitude and spirit of their times but there are various dissimilarities between them. The most important difference is way of expressing oneself. Minnie adopts a passive way whereas Connie takes on an active way of responding to the social compulsions of her day. Minnie’s aggressive retaliation against the brutality of her husband depicts the lava that was kept inside but Connie finds various ways (these includes “shopping or to a movie… [going] across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out”) to ventilate her resentment against her family. Oates depicts a duality of nature in Connie when she says that “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head …” (Oates, 1993) Emily Dickenson’s protagonist expresses herself by using the action verbs that are paradoxical and is a manifestation of paradoxical nature of the protagonist. Poem expresses powers to “hunt” “speak” “smile” “guard” and “kill”. (Dickenson, 2003) Emily Dickinson shows that a woman can do everything unwomanly for the one who is her companion in true sense of the word. On the other hand, this poem expresses the agonies of a female poet that was restricted by her family and society to a narrow life devoid of any intellectual and/or literary independence. These social and familial compulsion produced rashness in Emily’s attitude. She was forced to produce art in seclusion and to it keep to herself only. So language becomes her only mean and tool to bear the torments of her intellectual beings. She embodies language as gun and is of the view that this loaded gun accompanied with her literary beings is fatal for socio-cultural compulsion against women. It provided her a sense of power and control. She further eulogizes language and considers it a safeguard to her literary being. And her language is enemy to al those traditions, norms, people and things who are against her poetical endeavors. So all these protagonist expresses themselves and their behaviors but the approaches of expressing oneself are different and diverse.
The difference in the thematic expression of main theme further leads to structural differences. Oates provides a graphic description and minute details of everything whereas Glasspell look at the psychological realism of the situations. For example Oates writes, “They must have been familiar sights, walking around the shopping plaza in their shorts and flat ballerina slippers that always scuffed the sidewalk, with charm bracelets jingling on their thin wrists; they would lean together to whisper and laugh secretly if someone passed who amused or interested them. Connie had long dark blond hair that drew anyone’s eye to it, and she wore part of it pulled up on her head and puffed out and the rest of it she let fall down her back.” (Oates, 1982) Glasspell tries to locate the psychological interpretation behind every move(s) of the character(s). For Smith (1982) has rightly pointed out; “”From their entrance, the women stand apart from the men, clustered at the stove. The men talk with a rough familiarity born of working together and knowing one another. The women seem less acquainted and never call each other by their first names. But at the men’s first disparaging remarks about Minnie’s housekeeping and women ‘worrying over trifles,’ the women move closer together” (p. 177). Dickenson illustrate the main theme in a descriptive way and relies on the golden rule of comprehensive with brevity.
So these textual evidences and arguments clearly manifest that although Trifle by Susan Glaspell, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates and Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” consider the same feminist theme but their approach toward feminism is different. This difference in approach does not produce the thematic conflict among them and in the minds of the readers but it enriches the feminist theme by illustrating its various facets and emphasizing that each facet is unique and exclusive.
Bennett, P. (1986). My life, a loaded gun: female creativity and feminist poetics. Boston: Beacon
Dickenson, Emily. (2003). My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun. Retrieved August 6, 2008, from
Glaspell, S., & Cook, G. C. (1926). Trifles and six other short plays. London: E. Benn.
Makowsky, V. A. (1993). Susan Glaspell’s century of American women: a critical interpretation
of her work. New York: Oxford University Press.
Oates, J. C. (1993). Where are you going, where have you been?: selected early stories.
Princeton: Ontario Review Pr.
Smith, Beverly A. (1982). “Women’s Work–Trifles? The Skill and Insights of Playwright Susan
Glaspell.” International Journal of Women’s Studies 5 (March): 172-84.
 There are several other profound symbols in the play like unfinished work, party telephone, jar of cherries etc. that depicts various thematic expressions.
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