Becoming an Epic Lead
in the Novels of
George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë,
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf,
Sylvia Plath, and Audre Lorde
To the educators who have inspired me: Mrs. Fry, Mr. Hes, Madame Santini, Mr. Cesta, Mrs. Vorisek, Mark Vecchio, Nancy Yanoshak, Jim Monsonis, Leslie Davidson, and Elaine Savory;
To my grandfather Mark Gottlieb, who passed away, and will not get to read this thesis, and to Bubbeh, who has always believed in me and whom I will beg to read this thesis, so that she can congratulate me;
To my friends and family, with a special thanks to mom, Sylvia Eusebi, for all of her help, and to dad, Edward Eusebi, for proofreading help, and for always telling me to do my homework;
To Simon's Rock, for making me believe that an undergraduate can write a thesis, and to Eugene Lang for making the project seem feasible;
And most importantly, to my advisor, Ann Snitow, for great advice and many inspiring conversations, and for guiding me through the process of making this project a reality.
Senior Work Table of Contents
Chapter I - The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot (1860)
Chapter II - Villette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)
Chapter III - Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gillman (1892)
Chapter IV - Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
Chapter V - The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1963)
Chapter VI - Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name, Audre Lorde (1982)
This paper will look at the ways in which female main characters in several novels reach for grandeur in attempts to establish power in their worlds and are denied and deny themselves of that status. As this paper focuses on the experiences of female main characters as they reach for grandeur, it is also preoccupied with the meaning and implication of achieving heroic status. The characters, in reaching for grandeur, are attempting to become heroic. The paper will ask the questions: What does it mean to become heroic? Is heroism itself gendered and in what ways does gender affect the ability of the characters to become heroic?
The paper will examine six books from five time periods in chronological sequence. The dates of publication correlate to moments when gender politics and discourse were different and changed. As Maggie Tulliver from George Eliot's Mill on the Floss serves as inspiration to this paper, her experiences will be sought in the experiences of the heroines of the other five novels. As The Mill on the Floss is the anchor book, another novel has been chosen from the same time period in order to give perspective. The novels and their dates of publication are as follows:
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot (1860)
Villette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)
Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gillman (1892)
Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1963)
Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name, Audre Lorde (1982)
Each of the novels centers on a (more or less) female figure, sometimes one who resembles the novelist. Just as the female leads encounter obstacles in achieving their goals, so do male characters. Yet, a juxtaposition of the experiences of male characters with those of the female characters in the same time and fictional world will yield evidence that the female main characters' experiences are more hindered by the expectations of society.
I will not use the terms hero/heroine to discuss the female main characters in these novels. To use the term hero to describe all female main characters is to use a masculine term as if it were non-gendered.
USAGE NOTE: Many writers now consider hero, long restricted to men in the sense “a person noted for courageous action,” to be a gender-neutral term. It is used to refer to admired women as well as men in respected publications, as in this quotation from The Washington Post: “Already a national hero in her economically troubled South Korea, . . . [Se Ri] Pak is packing galleries at [golf] tournaments stateside.” The word heroine is still useful, however, in referring to the principal female character of a fictional work: Jane Eyre is a well-known literary heroine. Ninety-four percent of Usage Panelists accept this usage.1
I propose that the term hero is as gendered as the term heroine. Just as I would not substitute the word man for human (which frustratingly contains the word), I will not use the term hero to mean both hero and heroine. While 94 percent of Usage Panelists, whose capitalized titles alone attest to their authority, may disagree with my choice, so would, I expect, at least that percentage of participants in the creation of the American Constitution have disagreed had anyone been present to propose the substitution of the word human for man in the document. As I am discussing female main characters (with the exception of Orlando whose gender changes), I have the liberty to always use the gendered term heroine. Yet this feminized form of the concept is so ladened with cultural and literary historical connotations that I prefer to avoid it entirely. Moreover, if I relied only upon the term heroine, I would face a dilemma in regards to the question of how to apply the term to Orlando. I wish to discuss gender and will therefore be careful to use non-gendered terms except when I specifically mean to imply that behaviors and decisions enacted by the characters are gendered. I am also loath to allow the assumption of a binary gender spectrum. The choice of either-or is particularly frustrating where neither-nor might be equally applicable. Therefore, I will not use the terms hero/heroine. I chose to substitute the terms hero/heroine with the phrase 'epic lead.'
I will continue to use the words heroic and heroism where applicable because they are non-gendered; I use them interchangeably with and hold them to have the same value and definition as the phrase "epic lead". What is the value and definition of the term heroic? What does it mean to be an epic lead? Lancelot and Galahad, Odysseus, Antigone. How similar are they, and how similar are their actions?
The aspect of being noble is integral to the composition of an epic lead. In using the word noble I mean to imply not the quality of royalty but of moral uprightness. What is the substance of moral uprightness? The specifics of the moral codes within which epic leads throughout literary history have functioned have differed vastly. It is difficult to compare the actions of epic leads from different times and cultures, impossible to evaluate those actions outside the context of those characters' situations. For example, I will assert that Maggie Tulliver's journey toward heroism pauses at an outcome wherein she is configured as a self-sacrificing epic lead, but that that status is dissatisfying to her. While her achievement of the position of self-sacrificing epic lead is less than ideal to her, still it acts as a marked improvement upon her earlier position in the novel, granting her a more powerful status. If Odysseus enacted that kind of self-sacrifice, his behavior would be scorned as the opposite of noble. Can a comparison be made between these two? If, as I have proposed, Maggie's self-sacrificing experience is less than completely heroic, then I again must ask, "What is the definition of heroic?" It is my task to define the term heroic in a way that is compatible with Lancelot and Galahad, Odysseus, Antigone, and Maggie Tulliver alike: an epic lead gets what s/he wants in a way that does not interfere with his/her own concept of moral judgment. Becoming an epic lead implies the symbolic overcoming of obstacles and the achievement of a significant social status that is recognized by the community.
The notion of an epic lead getting what s/he wants is also problematic. Often the epic leads in these novels do not assert plainly and boldly what they want, so it will be my project to convince the reader of the epic leads' desired achievements where the epic lead itself may subvert them. This will be essential in deciphering the ways in which being gendered as female limits epic leads from becoming heroic.