“For years the old Italians have been dying/all over America.” -Lawrence Ferlinghetti
On the second floor of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, in an airy, well-lit, white-walled gallery, near a slender window overlooking a red-bricked Cambridge street, there is a display case holding three portraits on chipped wood not much bigger than post-cards. Of varying degrees of aptitude, the paintings are of a genre called “Fayum Portraits” from the region of Egypt where they’re commonly found. When the Roman ruling class established itself in this Pharaonic land during the first few centuries of the Common Era, they would mummify themselves in the Egyptian fashion while affixing Hellenistic paintings onto the faces of their preserved bodies. Across the extent of the Roman empire, from damp Britain to humid Greece, little of the more malleable painted arts survived, but in sun-baked Egypt these portraits could peer out 20 centuries later as surely as the desert dried out their mummified corpses. When people envision ancient Mediterranean art, they may think of the grand sculptures blanched a pristine white, Trajan’s Arch and the monumental head of Constantine, the colorful paint which once clung to their surfaces long since eroded away. And while the monumental marbles of classical art are what most people remember of the period, the Fayum portraits of Harvard provide an entirely more personal gaze across the millennia.
If white is the color we associate with those sculptures, then the portraits here in Cambridge are of a different hue. They are nut-brown, tanned from the noon-day sun, yellow-green, and olive. Mummy Portrait of a Woman with an Earring, painted in the second century, depicts in egg tempura on wood a dark-skinned middle-aged woman with commanding brown eyes, her black hair showing a bit of curl even as it is pulled back tightly on her scalp; a woman looking out with an assuredness that belies her anonymity over time. Mummy Portraits of a Bearded Man shows the tired look of an old man, grey beard neatly clipped and groomed, his wavy grey hair still with a hint of auburn and combed back into place. Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man represents a far younger man, cleft chinned with a few days’ black stubble over his olive skin. What’s unnerving is the eerie verisimilitude of this nameless trio.
That they look so contemporary, so normal, is part of what’s unsettling. But they also unsettle because they’re there to assist in overturning our conceptions about what Roman people, those citizens of that vast, multicultural, multilingual, multireligious empire, looked like. Our culture is comfortable with the lily-white sculptures we associate with our Roman forebearers which were then imitated in our own imperial capitals; easier to pretend that the ancient Romans had nothing to do with the people who live there now, and yet when looking at the Fayum portraits I’m always struck by how Italian everybody looks.
The old man could be tending tomatoes in a weedy plot somewhere in Trenton; the middle-aged woman wearily volunteering for a church where she’s not too keen on the new Irish priest, and the young man with the stubble looks like he just got off a shift somewhere in Bensonhurst and is texting his friends to see who wants to go into the city. I’ve never seen anyone who actually looks like the statue of Caesar Augustus of Primo Porta carved from white stone, but you’ll see plenty of people who look like the Fayum Portraits in North Boston, Federal Hill, or Bloomfield (the one either in Jersey or in Pittsburgh). When I look at the Fayum portraits, I see people I know; I see my own family.
Despite my surname vowel deficiency, I’m very much Italian-American. Mathematically, twice as much as Robert DeNiro, so I feel well equipped to offer commentary in answering the question with which I’ve titled this piece. Furthermore, as a second-generation American, I’m not that far removed from Ellis Island. My mother’s father immigrated from Abruzzo, that mountainous, bear-dwelling region that was the birthplace of Ovid, and his entire family and much of his fellow villagers were brought over to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, to work as stone masons, a trade they’d been plying since the first rock was laid in the Appian Way. My grandmother’s family was from Naples, where Virgil was born, a teeming volcanic metropolis of orange and lemon trees, a heaven populated by devils as native-son Giordano Bruno wrote in the 16th century. For me, being Italian was unconscious; it simply was a fact no more remarkable than my dark hair or brown eyes.
Being Italian meant at least seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the colored lights rather than the white ones on the tree, it meant (and still means) cooking most things with a heavy dollop of olive oil and garlic, it means at least once a week eating either veal parmesan, prosciutto and melon, calamari, spaghetti with tuna, and buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes. Being Italian meant laminated furniture in the homes of extended family, and Mary-on-the-half-shell; it meant a Catholicism more cultural than theological, with the tortured faces of saints vying alongside a certain type of pagan magic. Being Italian meant assumed good looks and a certain ethnic ambiguity; it meant uncles who made their own wine and grew tomatoes in the backyard.
Being Italian-American meant having an identity where the massive pop culture edifice that supplies representations of you implies that the part before the hyphen somehow makes the second half both more and less true. My position was much like Maria Laurino’s in Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America, where she writes that “All the pieces of my life considered to be ‘Italian’…I kept distinct from the American side, forgetting about the hyphen, about that in-between place where a new culture takes form.” What I do viscerally remember is the strange sense I had watching those corny old sword-and-sandal epics that my middle school Latin teacher used to fill up time with, a sense that those strangely Aryan Romans presented on celluloid were supposed to somehow be related to me. Actors whose chiseled all-American whiteness evoked the marbles that line museum halls. Sculptures of Caesar Augustus were once a lot more olive than white as well. That classical Greek and Roman statuary was vividly painted, only to fade over time, has been known since the 19th century, even as contemporary audiences sometimes violently react to that reality. Using modern technology, archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been able to restore some of the most famous Greek and Roman statues to glorious color, as he details in his Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, but as the classicist Sarah Bond writes in Forbes, “Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world.” We think of the Romans as lily white, but the Fayum portraits demonstrate that they very much weren’t. That the individuals in these pictures should appear so Italian shouldn’t be surprising—Romans are Italians after all. Or at least in the case of the Fayum portraits they’re people from a mélange of backgrounds, including not just Romans, but Greeks, Egyptians, Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, and so on. Rome was, like our own, a hybridized civilization, and it’s marked on the faces that peer out towards us on that wall.
Last fall, at a handful of Boston-area colleges just miles from the museum, classical imagery was appropriated for very different means. Students awoke to find their academic halls papered with posters left during the night by members of one of these fascistic groups to have emerged after the 2016 presidential election, a bigotry that has been revealed as if discovering all of the fungus growing underneath a rotting tree stump that’s been kicked over. This particular group combined images of bleached classical sculpture and neo-fascist slogans to make their white supremacist arguments. The Apollo Belvedere is festooned with the declaration “Our Future Belongs to Us,” 17th-century French Neo-Classical sculptor Nicolas Coustou’s bust of Julius Caesar has “Serve your People” written beneath it, and in the most consciously Trumpy of posters, a close-up on the face of Michelangelo’s David injuncts “Let’s Become Great Again.” There’s something particularly ironic in commandeering the David in the cause of white supremacy. Perhaps they didn’t know that that exemplar of the Italian Renaissance was a depiction of a fierce Jewish king as rendered by a gay, olive-skinned artist?
Such must be the central dilemma of the confused white supremacist, for the desire to use ancient Rome in their cause has been irresistible ever since Benito Mussolini concocted his crackpot system of malice known as fascismo corporativo, but the reality is that the descendants of those very same Romans often don’t appear quite as “white” as those supremacists would be comfortable with. This is especially important when considering that the Romans “did not speak in terms of race, a discourse invented many centuries later,” as scholar Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. Moral repugnance is a given when it comes to racist ideologies, but one should also never forget the special imbecility that comes along with arguing that you’re innately superior because you kinda, sorta, maybe physically resemble dead people who did important things. What makes the case of the posters more damning is that those who made them don’t even actually look like the people whose culture they’ve appropriated.
No doubt the father of celebrated journalist Gay Talese would be outraged by this filching. In a 1993 piece for The New York Times Book Review, he remembers his “furious and defensive father” exploding after he’d learned that the Protestant-controlled school board had rejected his petition to include Ovid and Dante in the curriculum, the elder man shouting at his son that “‘Italy was giving art to the world when those English were living in caves and painting their faces blue!’” A particular twist as the descendants of those same WASPs paper college campuses with posters of Italian sculptures that they somehow claim patrimony from. But that’s always been the predicament of the Western chauvinist, primed to take ownership over another culture as evidence of his own genius, while simultaneously having to explain his justifications for the disdain in which he holds the actual children of that culture.
Since the late 19th-century arrival of millions of immigrants from the Mezzogiorno, American racists have long contrived baroque justifications for why white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the inheritors of Italian culture, while Italians themselves are not. Some of this logic was borrowed from Italy itself, where even today, Robert Lumley and Jonathan Morris record in The New History of the Italian South, some northerners will claim that “Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa.” Northern Italians, comparatively wealthier, better educated, and most importantly fairer, had been in the United States a generation before their southern cousins, and many Anglo-Americans borrowed that racialized animus against southerners which reigned (and still does) in the old country.
As Richard Gambino writes in Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, it was in the “twisted logic of bigotry” that these immigrants were “flagrantly ‘un-American.’ And Italians replaced all the earlier immigrant groups as targets of resentment about the competition of cheap labor.” This was the reasoning that claimed that all Italian accomplishments could be attributed to a mythic “Nordic” or “Teutonic” influence, so that any Mediterranean achievements were written away, orienting Rome towards a Europe it was only tangentially related to and away from an Africa that long had an actual influence. Notorious crank Madison Grant in his unabashedly racist 1916 The Passing of the Great Race claimed that Italians were now “storming the Nordic ramparts of the United States and mongrelizing the good old American stock,” with Gambino explaining that “In his crackpot explanation, Italians are the inferior descendants of the slaves who survived when ancient Rome died.”
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes that Grant’s book was “the most influential tract of American scientific racism” and Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to the author claiming “The book is my Bible.” A lawyer and eugenicist, Grant’s writings were influential in both the Palmer Raids, a series of unconstitutional police actions directed by the Wilson administration against immigrants suspected of harboring anarchist and communist sympathies, as well as the xenophobic nastiness of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act which made eastern and southern European immigration slow to a trickle. Incidentally, it was the Johnson-Reed Act that, had it been passed 10 years earlier, would have barred my mother’s father from entering the United States; a law that former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lauded in a 2017 interview with Stephen Bannon, arguing that the banning of immigrants like those in my family “was good for America.”
In Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity, Helen Barolini writes that “Italian Americans are too easily used as objects of ridicule and scorn,” and while that’s accurate, it’s a rhetoric that has deep and complicated genealogies. Italy has always occupied a strange position in the wider European consciousness. It is simultaneously the birthplace of “Western Civilization,” and an exoticized, impoverished, foreign backwater at the periphery of the continent; the people who first modeled a noxious imperialism, and the subjugated victims of later colonialism. A pithy visual reminder of Italy’s status in early modern Europe can be seen in the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors, which depicts two of the titular profession surrounded by their tools. On a shelf behind them sits a globe. Europe is differentiated from the rest of the world by being an autumnal brown-green, with the exception of two notable regions colored the same hue as Africa—Ireland and Sicily. In Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America, coedited with Salvatore Salerno, historian Jennifer Guglielmo explains that the “racial oppression of Italians had its root in the racialization of Africans,” something never more evident than in the anti-Italian slur “guinea” with its intimations of Africanness, this implication of racial ambiguity having profound effects on how Italians were understood and how they understood themselves.
In the rhetoric and thought of the era, Italy was somehow paradoxically the genesis of Europe, while also somehow not European. As such, Italians were to be simultaneously emulated and admired, while also reviled and mocked. During that English Renaissance, which was of course a sequel to the original one, books like Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, with their respective paeans to sensuality and duplicity, molded a particular view of Italianness that has long held sway in the English imagination. Consider all of the Shakespeare plays in an imagined Italy: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentleman of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice, not to mention the occasional appearance of Romans in other plays. Shakespeare’s plays, and other icons of the English Renaissance, set a template that never really faded. A simultaneous attraction to and disgust at a people configured as overly emotional, overly sexual, overly flashy, overly corrupt, overly sensual, and with a propensity less cerebral than hormonal. And the criminality.
Long before Mario Puzo or The Sopranos, Renaissance English writers impugned Italians with a particular antisocial perfidy. Such is displayed in Thomas Nash’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton, which could credibly be called England’s first novel. In that picaresque, the eponymous character perambulates through the Europe of the early 16th century, encountering luminaries like Thomas More, Erasmus, Henry Howard, Martin Luther, and Cornelius Agrippa, and witnessing events like the horrific siege at Munster in the Low Countries. Most of Nash’s narrative, however, takes place in “the Sodom of Italy,” and an English fever dream of that country’s excess settles like a yellow fog. One Englishmen laments that the only lessons that can be learned here are “the art of atheism, the art of epicurizing, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of sodomitry.”
From Nash until today there has often been a presumption of vindictive relativist morality on the part of Italians, and it has slurred communities with an assumption of criminality. In the early 20th century sociologists claimed that the dominant Italian ethic was “familial amoralism,” whereby blood relations had precedence over all other social institutions. Nash’s nobleman is the great-grandfather to Michael Corleone in the collective imagination. Do not read this as squeamish sensitivity, I’d never argue that The Godfather, written and directed by Italians, is anything less than an unmitigated masterpiece. Both Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation are potent investigations of guilt, sin, and evil. I decided not to join the Sons of Italy after I saw how much of their concern was with stereotypes on The Sopranos, which I still regard as among the greatest television dramas of all time. I concur with Bill Tonelli, who in his introduction to The Italian American Reader snarked that “nobody loves those characters better than Italian Americans do,” and yet I recall with a cringe the evaluation of The Godfather given to me by a non-Italian, that the film was about nothing more than “spaghetti and murder.”
Representations of Italianness in popular culture aren’t just Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, there’s also the weirdly prevalent sitcom stereotype of the lovable, but dumb, hypersexual goombah. I enter into consideration Arthur “The Fonze” Fonzarelli from Happy Days, Tony Micelli from Who’s the Boss?, Vinny Barbarino of Welcome Back Kotter, and of course Friends’ Joey Tribbiani. Once I argued with my students if there was something offensive about The Jersey Shore, finally convincing them of the racialized animus in the series when I queried as to why there had never been an equivalent about badly behaving WASPs called Martha’s Vineyard?
Painter explains that “Italian Americans hovered longer on the fringes of American whiteness,” and so any understanding must take into account that until recently Italians were still inescapably exotic to many Americans. Tonelli writes that “in an era that supposedly values cultural diversity and authenticity, the portrait of Italian Americans is monotonous and observed from a safe distance.” The continued prevalence of these stereotypes is a residual holdover from the reality that Italians are among the last of “ethnics” to “become white.” Tonelli lists the “mobsters, the urban brute, the little old lady shoving a plate of rigatoni under your nose,” declaiming that “it gets to be like a minstrel show after a while.”
Consider Judge Webster Thayer who after the 1921 sham-trial of anarchists Barolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco would write that although they “may not have committed the crime” attributed to them, they are “nevertheless morally culpable” because they were both enemies of “our existing institutions… the defendant’s ideals are cognate with crime.” Privately, Thayer bragged to a Dartmouth professor, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards the other day?” As late as 1969, another professor, this one at Yale, felt free to tell a reporter in response to a query about a potential Italian-American New York mayoral candidate that “If Italians aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I’ve seen.”
But sometime in the
decades after World War II, Italians followed the Irish and Jews into the
country club of whiteness with its carefully circumscribed membership. Guglielmo
explains that initially “Virtually all Italian immigrants [that] arrived in the
United States [did so] without a consciousness about its color line.” Victims
of their birth nation’s rigid social stratification based on complexion and geography,
the new immigrants were largely ignorant of America’s racial history, and thus
were largely immune to the anti-black racism that was prevalent. These
immigrants had no compunction about working and living alongside African
Americans, and often understood themselves to occupy a similar place in
But as Guglielmo explains, by the second and third generation there was an understanding that to be “white meant having the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation, and assured preferential access to citizenship, property, satisfying work, livable wages, decent housing, political power, social status, and a good education, among other privileges.” Political solidarity with black and Hispanic Americans (we forget that Italians are Latinx too) was abandoned in favor of assimilation to the mainstream. Jennifer Gillan writes in the introduction to Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to be American that “American have often fought bitter battles over what it means to be American and who exactly get to qualify under the umbrella term,” and towards the end of the 20th century Italians had fought their way into that designation, but they also left many people behind. In the process, a beautiful radical tradition was forgotten, so that we traded Giuseppe Garibaldi for Frank Rizzo, Philly’s racist mayor in the 70s; so that now instead of Sacco and Vanzetti we’re saddled with Antonin Scalia and Rudy Giuliani. As Guglielmo mourns, “Italians were not always white and the loss of this memory is one of the great tragedies of racism in America.”
If there is to be any anecdote, then it must be in words; where literature allows for imaginative possibilities and the complexities of empathy. What is called for is a restitution, or rather a recognition, of an Italian-American literary canon acting as bulwark against both misrepresentations and amnesia. Talese infamously asked if there were no “Italian-American Arthur Millers and Saul Bellows, James Baldwins and Toni Morrisons, Mary McCarthys and Mary Gordons, writing about their ethnic experiences?” There’s an irony to this question, as Italians in the old country would never think to ask where their writers are, the land of Virgil and Dante secure in its literary reputation, with more recent years seeing the celebrated post-modernisms of Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Dario Fo, and Umberto Eco. In this century, the citizens of Rome, Florence, and Milan face different questions than their cousins in Newark, Hartford, or Providence. Nor do we bemoan a dearth of examples in other fields: that Italians can hit a baseball or throw a punch can be seen in Joe DiMaggio’s homeruns and Rocky Marciano’s slugging; that we can strike a note is heard in Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; that we can shoot a picture is proven by Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese.
Yet in the literary arts no equivalent names come up, at least no equivalent names that are thought of as distinctly Italian. Regina Barreca in the introduction to Don’t Tell Mama!: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing says that there is an endurance of the slur which sees Italians as “deliberately dense, badly educated, and culturally unsophisticated.” By this view the wider culture is fine with the physicality of boxers and baseballs players, the emotion and sensuality of musicians, even the Catholic visual idiom of film as opposed to the Protestant textuality of the written word, so that the “intellectual” pursuits of literature are precluded. She explains that what remains is an “idea of Italian Americans as a people who would never choose to read a book, let alone write one,” though as Baraca stridently declares this is a “set of hazardous concepts [which] cannot simply be outlived; it must be dismantled.”
I make no claims to originating the idea that we must establish an Italian-American literary canon, such has been the mainstay of Italian-American Studies since that field’s origin in the ’70s. This has been the life’s work of scholars like Gambino, Louise DeSalvo, and Fred Gardaphé, not to mention all of the anthology editors I’ve referenced. Tonelli writes that “Our time of genuine suffering at the hands of this bruising country passed more or less unchronicled, by ourselves or anyone else,” yet there are hidden examples of Italian-American voices writing about an experience that goes beyond mafia or guido stereotypes. For many of these critics, the Italian-American literary canon was something that already existed, it was merely a question of being able to recognize what exists beyond the stark black and red cover of The Godfather. Such a task involved the elevation of lost masterpieces like Pietro di Donato’s 1939 proletarian Christ in Concrete , but also a reemphasis on the vowels at the ends of names for authors who are clearly Italian, but are seldom thought of as such.
That Philip Roth is a Jewish author goes without saying, but rarely do we think of the great experimentalist Don DeLillo as an Italian-American author. A restitution of the Italian-American literary canon would ask what precisely is uniquely Italian about a DeLillo? For that matter, what are the Italian-American aesthetics of poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jay Parini, Diane Di Prima, and Gregory Corso? What can we better say about the Italianness of Gilbert Sorrentino and Richard Russo? Where do we locate the Mezzogiorno in the criticism and scholarship of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Frank Lentricchia, and Camille Paglia? Baraca writes that “Italian Americans live (and have always lived) a life not inherited, but invented,” and everything is to be regained by making a reinvention for ourselves. Furthermore, I’d suggest that the hybridized nature of what it has always meant to be Italian provides a model to avoid the noxious nationalisms that increasingly define our era.
Guglielmo writes that “Throughout the twentieth century, Italian Americans crafted a vocal, visionary, and creative oppositional culture to protest whiteness and build alliances with people of color,” and I’d argue that this empathetic imagination was born out of the pluralistic civilization of which the Italians were descendants. Contrary to pernicious myths of “racial purity,” the Romans were as diverse as Americans are today, drawing not just from Italic peoples like the Umbrians, Sabines, Apulians, and Etruscans, but also from Egyptians, Ethiopians, Berbers, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Anatolians, Gauls, Huns, Dacians, Franks, Teutons, Vandals, Visigoths, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Iberians, Jews, Arabs, and Celts, among others. A reality quite contrary to the blasphemy of those posters with their stolen Roman images.
Rome was both capital and periphery, a culture that was a circle with no circumference whose center can be everywhere. Christine Palamidessi Moore in her contribution to the Lee Gutkind and Joanna Clapps Herman anthology Our Roots are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian American Writers notes that “Italy is a fiction: a country of provinces, dialects, and regions, and historically because of its location, an incorporator of invaders, empires, and bloodlines.” Sitting amidst the Mare Nostrum of its wine-dark sea, Italy has always been at a nexus of Europe, Africa, and Asia, situated between north and south, east and west. Moore explains that the “genuineness of the ethnicity they choose becomes more obscure and questionable because of its mixed origins; however, because it is voluntary, the act of choosing sustains the identity.”
The question then is not “What was Italian America?” but rather “What can Italian America be?” In 1922 W.E.B. DuBois, the first black professor at Harvard, spoke to a group of impoverished Italian immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House. Speaking against the Johnson-Reed Act, DuBois appealed to a spirit of confraternity, arguing that there must be a multiethnic coalition against a “renewal of the Anglo-Saxon cult: the worship of the Nordic totem, the disenfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic and South Sea Islander.” When DuBois spoke against the “Anglo-Saxon cult” he condemned not actual English people, but rather the fetish that believes only those of British stock can be “true Americans.” When he denounced the “Nordic totem,” he wasn’t castigating actual northern Europeans, but only that system that claims they are worthier than the rest of people. What DuBois condemned was not people, but rather a system that today we’ve taken to calling “white privilege,” and he’s just as correct a century later. The need for DuBois’s coalition has not waned.
Italian-Americans can offer the example of a culture that was always hybridized, always at the nexus of different peoples. Italians have never been all one thing or the other, and that seems to me the best way to be. It’s this liminal nature that’s so valuable, which provides answer to the idolatries of ancestry that are once again emerging in the West (with Italy no exception). DuBois offered a different vision, a coalition of many hues marshaled against the hegemony of any one. When I meet the gaze of the Fayum portraits, I see in their brown eyes an unsettling hopefulness from some 20 centuries ago, looking past my shoulder and just beyond the horizon where perhaps that world may yet exist.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Lusty adj: Fired/Inspired by Pure Lust: Wanton, Gynergetic, Biophilic, joyous, merry, robust, flourishing, strong, powerful, vigorous, having an unrestrained inclination for enjoyment — Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language
“What does Shakespeare really have to say to women?”
I still remember the day Mary Daly stood in front of our class and asked that question. It caused a distant rumble in my head, like a deep tremor portending an earthquake. I spent the rest of the class, the rest of the semester, the rest of my life, trying to answer it. And with every attempt at an answer the fault line slid a little, the supposedly solid ground of my assumptions cracked and broke and fell away.
“What does any of this really have to say to women?” It’s a question I have been asking and trying to answer ever since.
That I was in Daly’s class at all was something of an accident. That semester I had kissed my first girl. We had been wandering around a local golf course one fall night, talking about anything and everything, when she finally reached across that indefinable space between us and pulled me to her. I was utterly smitten. I would have followed her anywhere. If she had been into race cars I’d have become a NASCAR fan. But she was a feminist — a radical feminist — and had been reading Mary Daly. So instead I went with her to womyn-only music festivals, hung out at lesbian bars, and since I was a student at Boston College, where Mary Daly taught, enrolled in her class. It took a little convincing, since I was in the Russian and Middle Eastern Studies department and Feminist Ethics wasn’t on my course list. I remember planting myself in Daly’s office to persuade her to let me in the course — the one she only allowed women to take — with all the clueless confidence of a good student who assumes that if it is written in a book, it can be learned. I had this idea that my new romance would be over before it got off the ground if I didn’t get into that class, so I wasn’t taking no for an answer.
That was my introduction to feminism. Not the slow or even sudden epiphany of the inherent misogyny of patriarchal culture, but a simple case of horniness and an overwhelming desire to impress a girl. I’m amazed that Daly took me on. But she was always a generous woman under the formidable rigor of her intellect.
Elemental adj: [“characterized by stark simplicity, naturalness, or unrestrained or undisciplined vigor or force . . . CRUDE, PRIMITIVE, FUNDAMENTAL, BASIC, EARTHY” — Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language]: This definition has been awarded Websters’ Intergalactic Seal of Approval
Daly was born in 1928 in what she called “the Catholic ghetto” of Schenectady, N.Y. She was possessed of a voracious intellect, something her parents and teachers recognized and, to their credit, encouraged, until she declared that she wanted to be a philosopher — not an acceptable profession for a young Catholic woman. Daly insists she didn’t know where this sudden determination for a life of the mind came from — “the school library had no books on the subject,” she wrote.
Daly was accepted into a small Catholic college, The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. Since they didn’t offer a major in philosophy, she studied English, presumably the next best option. She earned her masters at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., also in English, since her scholarship required she continue her course of study. But she approached her classes as a philosopher. Hers seems to have always been a study of the elemental nature of existence, of what later she would come to call “Be-ing.”
Earthquake Phenomenon 1: the experience of cosmic shakiness, trembling, and dislocation, during which time Gyn/Ecologists share with our sister the Earth the agony of phallocratic attacks 2: Ordeal experienced by Crones engaged in the Otherworld Journey beyond patriarchy, which involved confronting one’s Aloneness as the ground splits open, and Spanning the chasm by Acts of Surviving, Spinning, and weaving Cosmic Connections — ibid.
Her determination to pursue studies in philosophy and Catholic theology eventually landed Daly at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. In the 1950s, Catholic universities in the United States did not allow women to study for the highest degree in the field — a Doctorate of Sacred Theology — and Daly would settle for nothing less. In Switzerland the faculty was state-controlled, and therefore it was illegal to exclude women. “None of the male students would sit next to me,” she would later recall. “They feared the temptations that might arise from sitting next to a female.”
She found the lectures stifling, but the intellectual demands bracing, and the connections she made with students exhilarating. She called it “seven years’ ecstatic experience interspersed with brief periods of gloom…a sort of lengthy spiritual-intellectual chess game.” Yet even in that rarefied ivory tower, the winds of change were stirring. Daly felt the breeze in 1965, when she visited Rome at the closing of the Second Vatican Council.
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Vatican II had on people of the Catholic faith. The Council was convened with the specific intention to understand the role of the Church and what it meant to be Catholic in a modern era. Daly remembers it this way:
The Rome of Vatican II was a sea of international communication — the place/time where the Catholic church came bursting into open confrontation with the 20th century. It seemed to everyone…that the greatest breakthrough of nearly two thousand years was happening. We met — theologians, students, journalists, lobbyists for every imaginable cause — and found our most secret thoughts about “the church” were not solitary aberrations. They were shared, spoken out loud, allowed credibility. There was an ebullient sense of hope.
That “ebullient sense of hope” came with a concurrent feeling of outrage when Daly attended a session at St. Peter’s:
I saw in the distance a multitude of cardinals and bishops — old men in crimson dresses. In another section of the basilica were the “auditors:” a group which included a few Catholic women, mostly nuns in long black dresses with heads veiled. The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the “princes of the church” and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic.
Daly returned to Fribourg inflamed with reformatory zeal, and wrote her dissertation on the role and place of women in the church and in Catholic doctrine. A few years later, having accepted a teaching position at Jesuit-run Boston College, she turned the dissertation into her first major book, The Church and the Second Sex. It was published in 1968 to wide acclaim. In 1969, Boston College fired her.
Courage to Sin [sin derived fr. Indo-European root es- to be—American Heritage Dictionary]: the Courage to commit Original Acts of participation in Be-ing; the Courage to be Elemental through and beyond the horrors of the Obscene Society; the Courage to be intellectual in the most direct and daring way, claiming and trusting the deep correspondence between the structures/processes of one’s own mind and the structures/processes of reality; the Courage to trust and Act on one’s own deepest intuitions — ibid.
The Mary Daly I knew came into existence here, on the cusp of the second wave of the feminist movement. The Church and the Second Sex was a call to reinterpret Catholic doctrine from a feminist perspective — to see the equality of women as central to the message of love that the Church claims to preach. It was in many ways a response to that vivid scene in St. Peter’s.
Her termination caused a series of protests among the then all-male student body. It was, after all, the late ’60s, even on a Jesuit campus. The college administration bowed to the pressure and not only rehired Daly, but gave her tenure. She would spend the next 30 years there, fighting different versions of that same battle for the right of women to speak freely. But by the time her tenure was granted she was no longer interested in trying to reconcile her feminist perspective with Catholic doctrine. Her next book, Beyond God the Father, rejects all organized religion. “A woman’s asking for equality in the church,” she once wrote, “would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in the Klu Klux Klan.” The Mary Daly I knew was no longer interested in giving those women in St. Peter’s a chance to speak alongside their be-robed and be-ribboned male colleagues. She told us that story when we were discussing Virginia Woolf:
Let us never cease from thinking — what is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men?
I still have my copy of Three Guineas from that class, and it still falls open to that passage, underlined heavily in black ink. In fact, I have all my books from Daly’s classes. Some of the margin notes are embarrassingly naïve, but years later I still find truth in the passages I so earnestly marked, underlined, starred, and (as in the case of the above quote) copied out and taped to my dorm room mirror.
Be-ing (verb): 1. Ultimate/Intimate Reality, the constantly Unfolding Verb of Verbs which is intransitive, having no object that limits its dynamism. 2. The Final Cause, the Good who is Self-communicating, who is the Verb from whom, in whom and with whom all true movements move –ibid.
From the early ’70s on, Daly’s theory of feminist ethics transformed into something more like a feminist cosmology. Finding no words in the English language to properly convey the free female existence as she conceived it, she created her own. Not as a secret society only available to the initiate (think of J.R.R. Tolkien with his interminable Elvish, or any Trekkie who claims to speak Klingon), but as a conquering of language, patriarchal overtones sloughed off, so that women could speak without constraint. Daly’s lexicon is a joyfully eccentric combination of puns, etymological emphases, and quixotic capitalizations:
boredom: a feeling of ennui
Boredom: the official/officious state produced by bores (that is, a synonym for patriarchy).
Her invented words with their reclaimed meanings first appear in Pure Lust. Eventually she had to write her own dictionary, which she called a wickedary.
For a young woman coming to terms with her attraction to other women, that first class gave me a way to talk about women, and about what it was to be a woman, that felt true. That I didn’t know how to do this was not something I realized until Daly flat-out asked me: “What does Shakespeare really have to say to women?”
I hadn’t realized that was a question I could ask. Or needed to be asked. Mary Daly was by far one of the smartest and most intellectually brave people I’ve ever met. In all time I knew her, I never once heard her dismiss a student’s challenge, or reward someone for parroting back what she might want to hear. She liked a good argument, Mary Daly did. More than anything else she showed me how a person could be true to herself, a true radical, and still remain alive and awake to the world.
Taking Daly’s classes did not, by the way, keep my first female romance alive. Alas, the girl eventually left me for an ex-nun-turned-baker at a vegetarian restaurant. Who can compete with fresh baked bread? But I did eventually answer the Shakespeare question to my own satisfaction. I was far too fond of the plays to reject them in a fit of politically correct pique, and decided he did have something to say to women — to me, at least. Women speak in Shakespeare not on the grand stage of historic events that determine the fates of kings and countries, but in intimate exchanges; parrying words with the men who would be their lovers, husbands, conquerors, and companions.
And here they often eclipse the men at their sides. Shakespeare may not have written “feminist” women, but not one of them was a doormat. “Thou and I,” says Benedict to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, “are too wise to woo peaceably.” Women in the Elizabethan era were supposed to be docile and obedient. Shakespeare, I think, appreciated a woman with witty tongue and steadfast heart.
Daly’s exuberant feminist ethics have remained a steady guide in my life — a way to navigate, and interrogate, a culture that is often rancorous and toxic to its members. What does any of this have to say to women? As a lifelong student of Daly’s, I keep asking.
Homepage image by Mary Werner via The Feminist Art Project, Kansas Chapter
My high school’s theater department put on two Shakespeare plays a year, and when I was old enough to audition, I ran to the front of the line – not to read for the part of Juliet in that year’s headlining Romeo and Juliet, but rather for her lesser known, and much more intoxicating complement, the lady Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Miraculously, I got the part. At the time, I was young and knew little of the play save the recent Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson adaptation, but quickly found myself madly in love with this character: a strong-willed, funny, independent wordsmith. For years, I envisaged Beatrice and her ilk as the exemplar of female empowerment in literature and theater, and yet while I’ve personally fixated on the Beatrices that have populated the centuries, I’ve done so because it is clear they were the exceptions to the rule. The rule, in fact, was Juliet. It was Beatrice’s younger cousin, Hero. It was Bianca and Disney princesses and anything that presented an ingénue as a leading lady. Sadly, for every Scarlet O’Hara, there is a Melanie Hamilton offsetting an absurdly independent protagonist. Clearly this paradigm is what has propelled literature forward, but lately, as I’ve explored my bookshelves, it seems as though this requisite stock character, as antiquated as its stock cousins, is finding its way off the pages of great novels, leading me to believe that she has been graciously euthanized by literary fiction. And thankfully so.
The ingénue in contemporary fiction is a powerful mirror against which society is reflected, and its notable absence is indicative of ambitious thirst for change. That there has been a gradual evolution on the page that is sadly not reflected even off the page for female writers, female politicians, and female business leaders is significant in this long-awaited evolution. Pinning down the issue to the paltry representation of women writers in reviews and literary journals as explored through the latest VIDA counts extrapolates the problems women writers face in representation, coverage, and reviews, and there is much work to be done to establish equality. Yet this lack of real estate does not mean that there is a deficit of powerful female characters written today.
When looking directly at the content of contemporary fiction, however, I am as excited as I was when I got the part of Beatrice back in the mid-1990s. Writers, both male and female, are creating strong, authentic characters who can stand on their own. There may be criticism on the outside, but directly on the page, this glorious affirmation of strong-willed women drives me as a writer, as a lawyer, and as a woman, to know that we are represented on the page, whether instantly likable or not. As an aside, perhaps the hotly contested debate currently surrounding this question in fact hinges on the lack of ingénues populating today’s great novels. A simple glance at titles reflects this: The Woman Upstairs, Look At Me, Gone Girl, State of Wonder, On Beauty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Hours, and even in non-fiction with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. None of these books apologizes for anger, frustration, strength, manipulation, power, emotion, sensuality. And mostly, none of these books requires a supporting ingénue waiting in the corner, ready to cry foil to a Lizzy Bennett or Jane Eyre or even Catherine Earnshaw.
In contemporary society and fiction, women run companies, perform surgeries, and question their desire to even have children. Dr. Marina Singh and Dr. Anneck Swenson battle wits in the South American jungles of State of Wonder, almost inverting the stereotype by making an ingénue out of the missing male doctor, Anders; Eva Khatchadourian begs people to question her “traditional female values” by often wishing she never had a child in We Need to Talk About Kevin; and women of three generations dominate The Hours, portraying this very evolution of the literary female character in a single brilliant narrative. I could continue to list the novels, but it would probably exceed my word count, so instead, it’s probably better to review how we got to this point.
It’s not that strong women were absent from literature in the past, but rather that they were welcomed with antithetical reception: if not written amongst a flock of female stereotypes (read, “the villain,” the “mother,” the “nurse”), they may have needed the ingénue as a foil to the less commonly recognized strong women of the time. In contemporary culture, however, no one denies the presence of strong, successful, complex women in every facet of society, and likewise, readers are not shocked when they turn up in great literature. It is simply that contemporary literary fiction portrays a realistic society so that ingénues are no longer needed within the texts — as foils or otherwise.
When looking back at some of our most beloved “strong women in literature” from Shakespeare to Victorian England to the early 20th century, almost none of these women is allowed to exist on her own, almost as if the supporting ingénue (or another stock female character) must balance the strong woman so that society may rest. This seesaw of female identity so portrayed in literature of the past seemed necessary in order to propel forward movement. By having the rare and special woman on one end and the stock female (usually the ingénue) on the other, their interaction pushed the story forward, enabled the game of wits to persist, and flexed the narrative into motion.
Beatrice, the gloriously witty self-effacing, proud bachelorette of Much Ado About Nothing, vows never to marry and is teased, mocked, and pitied as a result, countered by the requisite companion ingénue in the banal Hero. Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, who we all know and love as the girl who just didn’t want to fit in, is deemed eponymously shrewish by her unabashed expression, and of course, is, of course, neutralized by her ingénue of a sister, Bianca. Portia, the brilliant heiress of The Merchant of Venice, stands initially as a stellar example of intelligence, power, and leadership, but in order to fulfill her needs as an ingénue, she must impersonate a man. Although pillars of force, these women cannot be fully portrayed without a veil of disbelief, either by unrivaled presentation beside a flattering ingénue or the forced portrayal of a man, so that societal equilibrium of the time is restored.
Fast-forward to early 19th century England, not far from the domination of yet another female monarch, and strong women in literature are still not singularly permissible. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, the presumed model of the era, is a wonderfully suspicious, intelligent representation of female strength, yet still must be presented beside her exhaustively ingénuesque sisters, so that we all know how rare and special a creature she is. Lizzy Bennett is sublime, and I share a name and nickname with her, so I can’t help but beam with pride whenever she is listed amongst the feminist wonders of the literary world; but the sad truth is that she is so well cited because she is the outlier. Society does not yield a sea of stereotypes in order to hone in on a strong woman, and nor should literature require this pool of ingénues, out of which we may select and conclude that, indeed, Ms. Bennett is different.
Even in late 19th/early 20th century literature, women who battled this stereotype were plagued with depression and expropriated labels. In England, Virginia Woolf wrote of depression and isolation, while in America, Charlotte Perkins Gilman openly divorced her husband, but not before writing about post-partum depression in an incisive story that had never been seen before on the page. Sadly, these women committed suicide, and their autobiographical roles were neither accepted nor credible by the male literary establishment, reflecting yet another mirror of their times. Their characters, however, have lived on, refusing to succumb to literary archetypes. Had they been written as ingénues, they would have evolved into that other stock character of “the madwoman in the attic.” Unfortunately, by removing the label of ingénue and refusing to share the scenes with a classic ingénue, these characters and their architects met a tragic end.
Now, however, strong female characters reign aplenty in literature without their necessary ingénue escorts, slowly eroding the role of that stock accompanying character. It’s not that these strong female characters newly exist, or that they suddenly gained mass appeal, but rather that they are surviving on their own. They are flawed, beautiful representations of women that provide depth, understanding, and sympathy, regardless of their periodic unlikeable actions. They bear their identities proudly, and never require an accompanying convention to confirm their individuality, so that the role of the primary and supportive ingénue is no longer required.
I recently went to hear Isabel Allende speak about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. At the Q&A, a young aspiring female writer rose to ask a question that surprised a majority of the audience. “You write a lot of strong women in your books,” she said, before asking, “Has there been anyone who has influenced you?” Allende either didn’t understand the question or wanted to emphasize the lunacy of it, and after three attempts replied: “Do you know any weak women?” Needless to say, a resounding uproar of applause emerged from the previously unobtrusive audience. This is not a topic that is far from the consciousness of the literary establishment, nor is it one that should be. It is so prevalent on people minds and hearts precisely because of its relevance. Readers don’t want to see any more ingénues or stock characters. They want to see the people that they know, the strong women who populate their lives, because, as Isabel Allende so bluntly and perfectly stated, there really aren’t weak women.
I’m not naively suggesting that contemporary fiction has conclusively banished the ingénue from its pages; nor am I claiming that the character is close to her coffin in certain genres, but I am suggesting that that she should be. Fiction, as any vital art form, serves a purpose to reflect society in its emotional, environmental, and political nuances. It informs us, teaches us, reflects humanity in its reverie. If the ingénue, which may be dying in literary fiction, begins to fade in all genres of contemporary literature, if we accept the evolution of the young female protagonist in literature, we may stop expecting women off the page to play that stock role, as well. By exiling the word to the trash bin or perhaps feeling a little bit guilty whenever used, we might continue to represent women as they are – likeable or not. Powerful characters who sometimes want love, sometimes want power, ache with ambition and passion, refuse to be called ingénues, or any other pile of stock stereotypes. They are merely women who need no other label.
Image via Wikimedia Commons