MATILDA as a Feminist Text | Discussion

While reading Matilda for the first time ever recently (gasp!), I loved how Roald Dahl places such an emphasis on gender equality in the story. If we consider feminism to be defined as equality between all genders, I would argue that this lovely children’s book is a strong example of a feminist text. Here are 5 quotes that help illustrate this point:

“Matilda said, “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable…”

This quote depicts girls as active agents in their own lives rather than the passive, conforming subjects that they are often portrayed as in literature.

“A girl should think about making herself look attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks is more important than books, Miss Hunky…”
“The name is Honey,” Miss Honey said.
“Now look at me,” Mrs Wormwood said. “Then look at you. You chose books. I chose looks.”

Here Roald Dahl takes a feminist stance by making Matilda’s awful mother possess a misogynistic mindset. This obviously shines a negative light on such prejudice against women by showing how ridiculous it sounds, especially coming from Mrs. Wormwood. By this point in the story, the reader knows that Miss Honey is a kind, smart, lovely individual who is both beautiful and intelligent. In other words, there’s no such thing as having to choose between “looks” and “books”!!

“I’m afraid men are not always quite as clever as they think they are. You will learn that when you get a bit older, my girl.”

I think the message is pretty clear with this one: men are not the only clever ones!

“Being very small and very young, the only power Matilda had over anyone in her family was brain-power.”

Probably my favorite thing about Matilda as a character is that she is a role model for everyone who feels ostracized by a desire to learn and be smart. Here Roald Dahl asserts that intelligence is power– just because one is disadvantaged in other ways doesn’t mean you can’t fight back with words and ideas and wit. Taken even further, one could argue that this also applies to feminism: just because someone is viewed as inferior for being a woman doesn’t mean they can’t challenge this adversity with brain-power. 

“All the reading she had done had given her a view of life they had never seen.”

This might be my favorite quote of the entire book. When I came across it while reading I literally stopped and reread the same line five or six times because I think it perfectly encapsulates one of the most important values of reading. Reading teaches us empathy, something imperative to understanding and accepting everyone around us. If more people read and had empathy, then perhaps feminism would be embodied by everyone.

The fact that this children’s book has such a strong, smart, independent female protagonist is so important for all readers, but especially younger ones. Characters like bookish Hermione Granger and clever Nancy Drew had such a huge impact on me when I was younger and I know that Matilda would have done the same if I had read this book as child. This is just one of the many reasons why Matilda is truly an incredible book!

Would you consider Matilda to be a feminist text? What are your thoughts on what constitutes a “feminist text” in general? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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HEMMED IN edited by M.R. Nelson | ARC Review

Hemmed In is a collection of six short stories written by women, about women. In the words of editor M.R. Nelson, the stories in this collection are about “women, the restrictions on their lives, and the ways they found to make space for themselves despite those restrictions.” When I was offered an ARC of this collection in exchange for an honest review I immediately knew I had to accept. Not only does Hemmed In include a story by Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, but it also highlights stories and writers that are often forgotten. My favorite aspect of this collection is the common thread that links these stories together: a woman’s role in society, both among men as well as other women. I’ve most often come across short story collections organized by shared time periods or by the same author, but this one struck me as particularly interesting and unique. Since there are only six stories, I’ll share my thoughts on each one:

+ “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell. I was sucked into this story from the moment it began. This murder mystery demonstrates a mutual understanding that can exist among women. It emphasizes the importance of being there for each other, being empathetic, and reaching out before it’s too late to do so. Though we may not always realize it, we share similar experiences that we can all learn and grow from.

+ “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Kate Chopin. I read dozens of short stories by Chopin for one of my courses last semester and I love the way she manages to captivate the reader in just a few quick pages. This story counters the idea that mothers are supposed to be eternally selfless. How can you take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself, too? By choosing to splurge and spend money on herself rather than her family, the protagonist shows that women are people with needs, desires, dreams, and wills of their own.

+ “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Unlike the other stories in this collection, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is written with a sort of stream of consciousness style as though the protagonist is writing her thoughts in a journal. Though her husband, a physician, repeatedly assures her that time alone will help her “recover,” what she really desires is to play a more active, social role in society. This powerful story of a supposedly “sick” woman illustrates the way women have been trapped physically, mentally, and emotionally. Gilman’s writing is clever, genuine, and really puts the reader in the shoes of the protagonist.

+ “Little Selves” by Mary Lerner. This story is just so, so sweet. Despite the fact that the protagonist is on her deathbed, she nevertheless finds solace in looking back on her happiest memories. Lerner’s optimistic story suggests that women are capable of leading fulfilling lives that they can look back on fondly.

+ “The Leading Lady” by Edna Ferber. I love that the overall message of this story is the importance of camaraderie and friendship among women. It made me want to call up all of my amazing friends who are women and thank them for always being there for me, just as the protagonist finds comfort in speaking with the women she meets in the hotel. This is “girl power” at its finest!

+ “The Bohemian Girl” by Willa Cather. I was thrilled when I discovered that a Willa Cather story is included in this collection. I fell in love with this story from the very beginning, especially because it gives off strong My Antonia vibes. In fact, there are many similarities between this short story and that novel. For instance, there are the familiar conflicts between home and away, rural areas and cities, the past and the present. Both Nils and Jim Burden inevitably return to their pasts on the farm, though with differing outcomes. This is actually the first short story I’ve read by Cather, but it certainly won’t be the last!

Overall, the entire premise behind a “taster flight” of short stories such as Hemmed In is brilliant and incredibly effective at highlighting a specific point or theme. In this case, these stories work to showcase not only the talent of women as writers but also the perseverance of women in spite of the discrimination and subordination we have faced throughout history. As an added bonus, I have now been introduced to several writers whose work I need to read more of!

Would I recommend this to a friend?: Yes!! I would recommend this to anyone interested in feminist writing, any of the particular authors featured in the collection, or simply short stories in general.

What are your thoughts on this collection? Have any related recommendations based on these authors? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

How to Read Sexist Texts When You’re a Feminist English Major | Discussion

Recently I had the displeasure of taking a course dedicated to Renaissance poetry, and MY OH MY were those old white men a bunch of misogynistic poets. While there were a few glimmers of hope amidst the nearly translucent pages of my weathered Norton Anthology of Poetry (as shown by my previous discussion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2), the vast majority of the poems I read for this class made me wonder why they were even regarded as important and “great” pieces of writing in the first place, never mind why we continue to include them in poetry collections like this one. It’s safe to say that after reading dozens of these poems over the course of the semester, my patience was worn down to a precariously thin layer of frustration.

It was necessary for me to think of concrete ways of addressing this problem while still being able to do well in the class. Refusing to read the poems was obviously not an option for me, meaning that I had to get a bit creative with my reading strategy.

I must say up front that the following advice is purely based on my own personal experiences reading these works. These steps may not work for everyone and that is perfectly okay. We all have our own tips and tricks to help us confront, interpret, and challenge views that challenge our own– the following pieces of advice happen to be my own personal strategy. At any rate, I hope you find this discussion at least a bit helpful or thought-provoking in some way.

1. Actually read it.

Yes, actually read the incredibly sexist poem or story or novel that you’d desperately like to avoid at all costs (unless, of course, it contains something personally triggering– then do whatever you need to in order to practice self-care). The reason I urge you to read it is that it’s difficult (nigh impossible) to make an educated argument against something if you do not have relevant textual evidence with which to back up your claim.

2. Maintain your distance.

I’m sure there’s a better, clearer, more accurate and succinct way of saying this, but I’ll try my best.  I think it’s important to recognize that someone can acknowledge and understand another person’s opinions without believing in or agreeing with them. For instance, in my poetry class I was required to read, understand, and explicate these poems in order to receive a good grade. However, this did not stop me from challenging the ideas that these poems presented. It was vital that I read these poems with from a certain intellectual and ideological distance that allowed me to understand them without having to agree with their meaning.

3. Allow feminism to fuel your analysis.

While it’s important to understand and think about the poems according to the context in which they were written, it’s also valuable to read them through a feminist lens. Feminist literary theory exists for a reason: to be utilized. Moreover, this class forced me to become comfortable with directly pointing out the sexism in writing that is considered to be canonically “great.” I was not going to sit there and tell my professor that I support the inclusion of Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Breasts” in the Norton Anthology of Poetry over providing ample space for one of Lady Mary Wroth’s entire crown of sonnets. (Honestly, are those four lines of pure female objectification really a necessary component of this collection?) Just because something has been deemed a “classic” work of literature does not mean that it is without flaws.

4. Think about your own beliefs and values.

At the end of the day, I used this class as an opportunity to assess and spend time thinking about my own core beliefs. What about these poems did I find offensive and uncomfortable to read? Why did I feel this way about what I was reading in the first place? By using this as an opportunity for individual reflection I was able to better understand my own personal values.

Again, I hope this discussion is thought-provoking or beneficial in some way, whether that be in an academic setting or simply while reading in your daily life.

Have you ever read something that challenged your beliefs? How did you handle the situation? What do you think about the advice that I’ve offered? Do you have any advice for confronting issues like this? I would absolutely love to discuss these topics in greater detail, so please let me know what you think in the comments section down below!

Yours,

HOLLY

How Shakespeare Redefined Beauty (Sort Of) | Discussion

This semester I’m taking a Renaissance Poetry class, which can basically be summed up in two words: Shakespeare’s sonnets. We’ve read much more than solely sonnets by Shakespeare, of course; however, he had such a remarkable influence on this poetic form that many of our class discussions of other poems ultimately circle back to the Bard at some point. It wasn’t until was in the process of writing an essay about his “Sonnet 2” that I realized the magnitude of his role in redefining the traditional Petrarchan idea of beauty. Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare does not simply praise the idealized beauty of women; rather, he also lauds the physical appearance of one of his close male friends.

“Sonnet 2” explains the toll that age can take on the body over time, particularly in regard to one’s outward beauty. According to Shakespeare, time is the destructive enemy of beauty, causing it to gradually fade and crumble with the passing years. He uses the detrimental effect of time as part of his argument to convince his attractive male friend to have children. The Bard believes that the only way to truly preserve the beauty of one’s physical features is to pass them along through children like a sort of biological inheritance.

Due to the overall argument of “Sonnet 2,” a significant portion of the poem is spent highlighting the attractiveness of Shakespeare’s male friend. Shakespeare directly states the word “beauty” a total of four times throughout the poem; however, the word is not used in the conventional way of the time period. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, the earliest definition of beauty is “that quality of a person (esp. a woman) which is highly pleasing to the sight.” This definition places a noticeable emphasis on gender, implying that beauty was a quality strongly associated with femininity rather than masculinity. We see this in the traditional Petrarchan sonnet in which Petrarch praises a seemingly flawless woman for her stunning looks (and virtue, always added like an afterthought).

This gendered notion of beauty was the relatively unchallenged norm– until Shakespeare came along, at least. Shakespeare chose to break away from the conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet and instead created a new tradition of his own. For instance, a great number of his sonnets are addressed to a male friend rather than to a female lover. This difference was clearly an unexpected development in the world of poetry at the time and still comes as a surprise to many modern readers. Simply by speaking about a man’s beauty in a sonnet addressed to a man, Shakespeare twisted the Petrarchan ideal of beauty and demonstrated that the intended audience for sonnets need not only be female. 

Shakespeare also defied that confines of the Petrarchan sonnet by creating the English sonnet. Petrarchan sonnets generally have an abba rhyme scheme and are divided by a volta between the octet and the sestet. On the other hand, English sonnets are divided into three quatrains with an alternating rhyme scheme and a rhyming couplet at the end. There is usually a volta or heavy emphasis in the rhyming couplet, as opposed to the volta that divides the Petrarchan sonnet into two distinct parts.

By rebelling against traditions of gender and poetic form, Shakespeare separates himself from the Petrarchan sonnet, forges a new path for future poets, and redefines the old gendered definition of beauty. No longer must beauty solely be a female characteristic; instead, the appearances of men can be extolled in poetic verse alongside that of women.

Does the traditional, idealized, gendered notion of beauty still exist? Of course it does. (Unfortunately, Shakespeare only managed to slightly alter it, not get rid of it.) I don’t mean to argue that Shakespeare is some sort of flawless feminist sonnet writer because it’s clear that his views of men and women were far from equal. Instead, I hope I have simply highlighted the Bard’s important and influential role in changing how beauty was discussed in poetry as well as the poetic form of sonnets as a whole.

What are your thoughts on Shakespeare’s sonnets? Do you think his sonnets are to be celebrated or criticized (or both) in regard to how they speak of beauty? Do you have a favorite Shakespeare sonnet? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

“THE STORY OF AN HOUR” by Kate Chopin | Review

Published in Vogue in 1894, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” tells of Louise Mallard’s entrance into and exit from sudden independence. After being told that her husband has passed away, Louise is overwhelmed by a rush of freedom that she has never felt before. Unfortunately, this liberty is wrested from her grasp when she discovers that her husband is alive after all. In an unexpected turn of events, Louise is the one who no longer has the will to go on and immediately dies as her husband walks through the door.

Recently I read this story in one of my English literature classes as part of an exploration of feminist criticism. The brilliance of “The Story of an Hour” lies in its simplicity, conciseness, and ability to surprise the reader in a quick turn of events at the very end. One can’t help but feel for Louise and her surprising plight: she’s been subservient for so long that she doesn’t know how to handle   such an abrupt eruption of independence. How quickly her thoughts change as she realizes what she has been suppressing all this time: the desire to live.

“She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.”

Then, just when she begins to come to terms with her new position in life, that very same independence is wrested from her grasp with the return of a looming patriarchal figure. Despite the fact that this story was written at the end of the nineteenth century, it nevertheless remains undeniably relevant today. Personally, I know that I have definitely felt the tension between my own determination to be a strong, independent woman and society’s clashing expectations of how I should act and behave. It’s frustrating and insulting and  confusing, but works like “The Story of an Hour” remind us why it’s so important to keep talking about and fighting for gender equality.

Just some deckled edges among the trees 🌲🌲

A post shared by HOLLY 📓 20 (@nutfreenerd) on

While I was heartbroken to witness Louise’s death on the page, part of me can’t help but believe that it had to occur. After all, what would Louise done had she lived? There was no place for single women in society during this time period– at least, no position that could compare in value or comfort to that of a married white woman. Though the death of Louise’s husband granted her emotional and domestic freedom, it simultaneously condemned her to societal captivity. Only in death could she truly become an autonomous woman.

Kate Chopin wrote dozens of stories, but this one is high on my list of favorites. It succinctly captures the stifling feeling that can sometimes accompany being a woman, not to mention demonstrates the frustration of constantly being at odds with one’s position in society. This story is an important text that should be further emphasized both within and beyond discussions of feminist criticism.

Have you ever read this story before? What are your thoughts on other works by Kate Chopin? Any recommendations for stories or books that I should read? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

HOW TO BE A WOMAN by Caitlin Moran | Review

10600242How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran had been floating around in my peripheral vision for some time before a noteworthy recommendation from Ariel Bissett put it fully on my reading radar. Because I trust Ariel’s opinions and have never been led astray by her recommendations in the past, I decided to download the audio book version that she had listened to and endeavored to give it a go myself.

It saddens me to report that I have very mixed feelings about this memoir/nonfiction hybrid. The first few chapters had me cheering with delight– finally! A writer who isn’t afraid to talk about menstruation!– but my enthusiasm waned the more I listened. Some parts were truly hilarious and had me literally chuckling to myself in my bed as I listened to it, knitting needles and tangled yarn falling from my lap. Other parts had me shaking my head in confusion, wondering why she was emphasizing the discomfort of certain bras when the clear solution to the problem would be to simply buy a more comfortable one. Though I appreciated the fact that she wanted to discuss the smaller but still influential and important obstacles that women encounter throughout their lives, many of these issues sounded frivolous and exaggerated by her over-the-top narration and tendency to take problems to the next level. (Honestly, are weddings really the torturous, unbearable occasions that Moran makes them out to be?)

Again, I really wanted to like this book because Moran is coming from an important and unique perspective when it comes to modern feminism. At times it feels as though feminism is discussed primarily by those in academia or politics, when in reality it should be a common topic of conversation among everyone. Gender inequality impacts people regardless of their level of education, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation and therefore everyone should be able to have a say in the matter. I wholeheartedly agree with Moran on this point and wish that this message would have been executed and delivered in a different manner.

It’s difficult to explain, but while listening I felt like the book could have been toned down several notches overall. She almost seemed to be attacking certain women for liking things that may be considered stereotypically feminine. Is it so terrible if I actually like my designer purse or enjoy shopping for clothes or wearing bras? Her constantly pessimistic view towards numerous aspects of many women’s lives was quite off-putting and made me scratch my head more than a few times. Was she really arguing for gender equality if she was denouncing many of the ways by which some women feel more feminine or allow them to identify as women?

Though I began this book with an opened, eager, and excited mind, unfortunately I cannot shake my mixed feelings towards How to Be a Woman. I do appreciate the presentation of this memoir/nonfiction book, especially the engaging, hilarious, witty narration of the audio book as well as the message that it attempts to deliver. Its intentions may be in the right place; however, in my eyes it missed the mark and went a bit beyond the line of a coherent, realistic message and an effective delivery. While I most likely won’t be returning to this book in the near future, I have certainly gained a new appreciation for the way that Caitlin Moran loudly and unashamedly voices her bold, brutally honest opinions.

My Rating: :0) :0) :0) 3 out of 5

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes, but I would probably warn them ahead of time about Moran’s rather in-your-face delivery of her message. Also, they would have not mind an abundance of cursing, discussions that could be considered “too much information” by some people, and a lot of strong opinions.

Have you read this book before? What are your thoughts on it? Would you recommend any of Caitlin Moran’s other writing? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED by Gail Collins | Review

8174415When Everything Changed is an incredibly comprehensive account of how the role of women in society has changed throughout recent American history. Though I expected this book to have a certain level of detail in its research, I did not expect it to discuss this topic from such a wide variety of perspectives. Here the heterosexual white woman must share center stage with lesbians and women of color as well, piecing together a historical view that is much more holistic in its approach. For instance, Collins emphasizes the struggles of Native American women who have been further discriminated against and marginalized due to their culture. History is never one-sided; consequently, Collins has clearly made an effort to reflect as many sides of the historical dice as possible.

While reading, I found there to be both advantages and disadvantages to the way this book is organized. In general, the overarching structure of this book worked really well. It was divided into parts and chapters, with each chapter being further divided into different sections that each began and revolved around specific quotes. It was a subtle way to keep important themes alive throughout the entire text without directly stating them each time. However, at times the narrative felt a bit disjointed, mostly because Collins tended to go off on tangents about certain women or events. Though she always meandered back to the main topic eventually, these diversions made it more difficult to follow the chronological line that Collins initially seemed to be following.

One of the last topics that Collins discusses in When Everything Changed is Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Though she was not successful in gaining the seat in office, at the time her attempt was nevertheless hailed as a political success for women. Part of me couldn’t help but wonder what remarks Collins might make about Hillary’s most recent presidential campaign and the results of the presidential election in general. (Is this me secretly hoping for the publication of an updated edition? YES.) In light of these recent events, I think that Collins’ book and the questions asks are not only relevant but vital for our society to be thinking about when moving forward.

Overall, there are so many reasons why I enjoyed reading When Everything Changed: it captivated me, educated me, and made me think. Whether you’re a history buff or simply looking to gain more knowledge about the role American women have played in society in recent decades, look no further than Collins’ comprehensive, entertaining, and thought-provoking account.

My Rating: :0) :0) :0) :0) 4 out of 5

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes! I think that this is an important topic for anyone and everyone to learn more about, regardless of gender.

Have you read this book before? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Have any other recommendations for Gail Collins’ writing or books about this topic in general? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

QUOTE: Charlotte Bronte

ZADIE SMITH

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”  ~ Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Yes, yes, yes! Score one for equality, courtesy of the lovely Charlotte Bronte in her classic novel Jane Eyre. I adore Jane because she is incredibly independent and not afraid to stand up for herself and what she believes in. Passages like this are sprinkled throughout this novel, which really surprised me. This book was published in the year 1847- over 150 years ago!! If Charlotte Bronte had these thoughts and was willing to publish them, I wonder how many other women also felt like this?

This quote is very telling of just how long women have been fighting for equality. Although we have made amazing strides since then, we certainly still have some work to do. But we can get there eventually!

What quotes have you discovered recently? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Heroines from Books

nfn tttHi everyone! It’s time for another Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week the theme is Top Ten Favorite Heroines from Books, which I’m really excited about. There are so many great female characters in fiction these days that seem to be always in the shadow of the men. Well, step aside guys, because the girls are here to steal the show! In no particular order:

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1. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Eowyn Lord of the Rings

2. Eowyn from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

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3. Myfanwy Thomas from The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

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4. Marie-Laure from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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5. Ursula Todd from Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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6. Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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7. Regine from More Than This by Patrick Ness

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8. Margaret Rose Kane from The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E.L. Konigsburg

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9. Isabelle Lightwood from The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare

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10. Sam from The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

What are your favorite fictional heroines? What do you think about the gals in my list? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

 HOLLY