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Women in Literature

It is a man’s world. It is man who battles in wars and who lead nations. It is man who first ventured into the seas and into space. And it is man who write of these adventures, real and fabled. The master writers of the past comprise a dominantly male club. Homer, Chaucer, Shakespear, and Dante are members of this exclusive club. But, as Virginia Woolf points out, it was woman who “[imaginatively]… is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is absent from history” (1949).

This paradoxical relationship that exists between man and woman has been detrimental to womankind. It has impeded woman in many arenas, from the sciences to the arts. Particularly, women have been absent from literature. Virginia Woolf, in “A Room of One’s Own”, asserts that the literary tradition clearly excludes women writers, whereas T. S. Eliot’s definition of the literary tradition in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent” inadvertently excludes woman. Both Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot argue that a literary tradition is necessary to draw from and is a vital element in writing masterpieces.

For Woolf, woman’s literary tradition is in its infancy. For the most part, woman writers have no tradition to draw upon. She sees tradition and masterpieces as “not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice” (1961). That male literary tradition in inaccessible to woman because woman do not understand the male psyche completely, or they do not wish to.

She humorously uses the writing of Mr. A with his letter “I” as an example of why woman cannot draw upon the male literary tradition for their use. The values esteemed by males, self-aggrandizement, for example, are values that woman choose not to possess or relate to. Other values evident in the writings of the past, such as the heroic deeds of soldiers or the valor of a bloody war are values that woman, stuck in the sitting room, can never relate to. T. S. Eliot has a very abstract and romantic notion of the literary tradition and its influence on a writer.

Eliot asserts that the writer must draw upon the masters of the past as well as creating novel material. Eliot advocates that “the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously” (2). The literary tradition has a considerable role in the artistic development of the artist. Impressions and experiences are important for the artist in writing for “the poet has… a particular medium… in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways” (15).

Eliot does not deliberately exclude women in his reflections on literature and writers, he does not give them much to draw upon. Eliot advocates writers to draw upon dead poets, but almost all of the dead poets are males. The mind of Europe is one that is of a male one, for it is men who have controlled its history and politics since the beginning. When woman finally had courage enough to pick up the pen, they found that the entrance into the literary tradition they should draw upon was locked and that the key they were given did not fit.

Woolf stresses the importance of experiences in the artistic process. Likewise, Eliot stresses the importance of impressions and experiences. Woman did not have opportunities to get a variety of impressions or experiences. In either case, the literary tradition does not include women, nor do they have the facilities to gain ‘impressions and experiences’ that are vital to the artistic process. that the tradition of literature is composed of males and is accessible only to males.

As relation of the literary tradition to artistic process, Woolf asserts that the limitations society imposes on woman hinder her creativity. To her, “freedom and fullness of expression are the essence of the art” and “such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women” (1967). Woolf and Eliot witnessed the emergence of the modern art form. Such radical new forms of writing, art and music also bring a nostalgic longing for the past and for tradition.

Both authors attempt to relate the relevance of a tradition to such changes. Woolf asserts that woman have no literary tradition to draw upon. Their submissive role in society impeded their artistic growth. Similarly, Eliot’s definition of a literary tradition allows no room for woman writers. The fact that woman have no literary tradition is a major handicap for woman. In writing her essay, Woolf attempts to show how society has impeded the growth of woman writers and that, perhaps, in this period of change, woman can finally emerge from the shadows.

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