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Looking at the literature canon through a feminist lens

Morgan Banville

Morgan Banville

Seniors Stephanie Bullard and Jack McCabe read Emily Bronte’s gothic classic Wuthering Heights in Ms. Madsen’s AP English Literature and Composition class.

Abbey Branco and Reid Santos, Dartmouth High School

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Novels like The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Of Mice and Men, despite differing genres and story plots, all bear one similarity: the gender of their authors.

Dartmouth High’s English curriculum does a good job of covering most periods of British and American history. However, the majority of literature we read is written by (or from the viewpoint of) men. We commemorate few established female writers in our curriculum. This is due, perhaps, to the lack of respect and attention these authors were given in the past.

It seems that women who write and are respected for their writing are a rare commodity. In the past, many female authors had to use pseudonyms to disguise themselves in order to publish their work.

One book in particular that most students enjoyed in our middle school curriculum was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Hinton, a teenager at the time, used only her initials to get published because of the struggle her gender imposed in the world of literature. Emily Brontë also used a pseudonym to publish Wuthering Heights.

Not only are most of the books we read by men, they are also lacking in female characters. The Bechdel Test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, requires two female characters in any form of media to talk to one another about a topic that doesn’t center around men. Books like Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and Macbeth by William Shakespeare don’t even have a second female character that survives throughout the novel, much less can hold a meaningful conversation.

Most of the novels we read in English class barely, if at all, pass the Bechdel Test.

There is also a struggle with differing stories and lives that take place in the world of books. Diversity in novels is essential to amplify students’ learning experience and to aid them in becoming more versatile students and citizens. To ensure those things for the students of Dartmouth High, we need a more diverse curriculum.

Americanah author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentioned in her TEDTalk that focusing on one story can help form stereotypes in other groups of people and “make one story become the only story.”

A vast majority of the novels we’re required to read isolate the female characters into common tropes that have been around for decades: the matriarch, kind and soft spoken; the femme fatale, beautiful and dangerous; the platonic love, a friend but never anything more; or the young and naive girl with her head in the clouds. These novels that center on males ignore the fact that all of these traits can live in one woman, and they fail to show the depth and complexity that breathes in each female character.

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