Male vs. Female Writers: How Female Characters Are Portrayed Differently

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The disparities between viewpoints that male and female authors add to literature are often palpable. The characters they build as a result of these variations are also noteworthy. Even when reflecting on common characteristics of characters in a novel, their points of view are often diametrically opposed. Consider the depiction of mental illness or outright insanity in a tale for a moment. This impediment can be depicted in a multitude of ways. Consider the many contexts in which male and female authors depict female characters who are either dealing with psychiatric problems or simply insane. For the purposes of demonstrating this variance, this paper will examine mental infirmity and madness in female characters as written by Rita Britz in the “The Capable Wife”, Kate Chopin in “The Story of an Hour”, Stephen King’s “Misery”, and Charles Dickens in “Great Expectations”. Even though the disorders they suffer from are similar, the way female characters suffering from mental instability are portrayed by male and female writers differs because male writers tend to bring the mental problems forward whereas female writers tend to couch madness in their literary style.

To be polite we will begin with the ladies. In “The Capable Wife” author Rita Britz introduces us to Nora, next door neighbor of the narrator of the story. From all accounts, Nora is a normal housewife living with her husband Fanus and his mother and father on the family’s chicken farm. She is a good wife to Fanus and a doting daughter-in-law to Fanus’ mother and father. She even quits her job as a chemist to run the family’s chicken farming enterprise. Nora did such a good job at running the business that Fanus and his parents, as Nora told her narrator neighbor “had more than enough time on their hands to spend all her hard-earned cash supporting the Home Shopping Channel” (Britz). Nora also prepared “scrumptious meals” which were “rich in cream and real butter”, and “the most delicious desserts, cakes and home-made sweets” (Britz). Just what a good wife and doting daughter-in-law should be doing right?

It is at this point in the story that Britz begins to give us a look at Nora’s real character as she comments to her new neighbor and narrator, “Herbs! How I love herbs; I use herbs for absolutely everything… My friend, Limakatso taught me a lot about herbs and medicinal plants” (Britz). It is not a real stretch to believe that Nora knew about herbs and how to use them in several ways having been a chemist (pharmacist), why would her friend have had to “teach” her a lot about them? What is interesting in this encounter is how excited Nora gets about herbs and remarking that she uses them for “absolutely everything” (Britz). Nora also reveled in telling her neighbor about how she had met her husband, a former member of the rugby team who was always impeccably dressed, clean-shaven, and smelling of Adidas cologne. However, the neighbor also points out, “But she had never told me what an over-sized man he had become!” (Britz). The narrator also gives clues as to what the neighbor thought of the rest of Nora’s family. She described Fanus and his father as Nora attempted to prepare her back yard for the installation of a water feature (a coy pond or some such decorative device). “Both men were shirtless with their overly inflated abdomens bulging like freshly kneaded bread dough expanding over their trousers. I could not believe that the human body had the capacity to grow to such enormity” (Britz). As the story progressed, Nora’s mother-in-law dies suddenly. Nora confides in her neighbor in a whispering tone that near the end her mother-in-law had suffered from heart burn which she had treated with tea made from the bark of the Weeping Boer Bean tree. Nora then made the comment “if you brew tea from this bark of the Weeping Boer Bean tree, it works miracles. It contracts the blood vessels so nicely!” (Britz). Nora just confessed to killing her mother-in-law with an herb which causes vasoconstriction (contracting of the blood vessels). A good way to induce a heart attack in an overweight lady like her mother-in-law. Once again, Nora, a former pharmacist, would have been aware that vasoconstriction would have caused her mother-in-law to have a heart attack. A few weeks later, Nora told her neighbor that her father-in-law had also passed away with no other explanation than the neighbor postulating that “the poor man must have been heartbroken, or something, after his wife died” (Britz). Now, just a few weeks after her father-in-law died, her husband has now passes away, bedridden, grief stricken and alone. That’s just the story that Nora wants everyone to believe. As they are preparing to carry her husband’s body out to the funeral car that has arrived, the neighbor, seeing Nora standing off in a corner biting her bottom lip watching the police captain walk around and take notes about the scene, walked over to her and suggested that they move some furniture out of the way to clear the path for her husband to be taken out. At this point the narrator starts to move a small table in the entranceway, clearing off the contents on top, one of which she missed. However, the item didn’t lie there long, in a flash Nora was there to retrieve it. It was then that the neighbor noticed Nora’s eyes “ablaze with feverish fervor” but also the neighbor noticed “how cold… very lifeless those stunning blue eyes were!” (Britz). The neighbor then sees Nora “regain her composure… and proudly lift her chin” (Britz). The last line in the story ties it all together as it states “Wordlessly she put the bark of the Weeping Boer Bean tree in her pocket” (Britz). Why do you think Nora was so desperate to hide the Weeping Boer Bean tree bark?

Moving to the second lady writer on our list, we look at the Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour.” The main character and the back story are described very well by the first sentence of the story “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (Chopin). Whether Louise Mallard was suffering from a real heart problem or a heart problem of the emotional kind, the reader is never told. A friend of Brently Mallard, Louise’s husband, Richards, had delivered the news as soon as he got confirmation of the news of the rail disaster with Brently Mallard’s name at the top of the list of those killed. Unlike our first story, “The Story of an Hour” deals with madness in a different way, lamenting the position of a Victorian-era wife as not much more than an extension of her husband. Louise Mallard was depressed at the fact that her life meant nothing outside the narrow realm of being Brently Mallard’s wife. This above all else was probably the cause of Louise’s maladies. In the story, after hearing of her husband’s death, she wept uncontrollably for a time in her sister Josephine’s arms, then, when “the storm of grief had spent itself”, she went to her room to be alone. In her room, something very unexpected happens for someone who’s just been told her husband was dead. She starts to notice the goings-on outside her window; “the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life”, “the delicious breath of rain… in the air”, and “the notes of a distant song which some one was singing” (Chopin). Her world was once again starting to open up for her. The “awakening” of Louise Mallard is described in detail by Chopin “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air”. The cloak of depression and sadness that had maddened her existence was finally being lifted. Louise had suffered through years of a “powerful will bending hers” which had caused all her maladies. However, her joy and freedom were to be short-lived as, while she was descending the stairs, Brently Mallard came through the front door. The final single line ends this story much as the single first line had started it “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills” (Chopin).

Male authors, in contrast to female authors, tend to bring the mental problems right out in the open. Such as story is “Misery” by Stephen King. The majority of the story centers around a writer named Paul Sheldon who gets lost in a blizzard and crashes. Paul is found by Annie Wilkes, a registered nurse and Paul’s “number one fan” (King). Annie takes Paul to her cabin where she nurses him back to health. Slowly but surely, Paul regains strength only to find that he has suffered two broken legs and a fractured shoulder. Annie is furious when she buys Paul’s latest Misery novel only to find that he killed off her favorite character. In a scene that is both scary and eerily nice, Annie says “No, no, no. This simply will not do” (King) and forces Paul to write a new novel to resurrect Annie’s favorite character and favorite series of novels. As the story progresses, Paul finds more and more that he is no long a guest, but is a prisoner. Annie forces Paul to rewrite his first attempt after she makes him burn it. As the story progresses Annie’s attempts to control Paul become stronger, even giving him tranquilizers to keep him calm and writing. As Paul heals more, he is able to get up and make his way around inside Annie’s house where he finds a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about Annie’s past. He learns that she was charged and tried for killing several babies while she was employed in a hospital, but the trial imploded and fell apart due to lack of evidence. Paul also discovered that during the trial Annie had quoted lines from his Misery novels. This convinces Paul of Annie’s instability and he doubles his efforts to escape. Unfortunately for Paul, when Annie returns from a shopping trip she discovers that Paul has been up and exploring so she drugs him again, ties him to the bed, and breaks both of his ankles with a sledgehammer to prevent his further attempts to escape. Paul finishes the novel, gives it to Annie who loves it, then using lighter fluid that he concealed earlier, lights the manuscript on fire. While Annie is trying to save the manuscript, Paul hits her over the head with a typewriter, killing her and leaving her to burn in her house. King hides nothing in his portrayal of Annie’s mental defect, in fact, her mental problems are the driving force of the story.

Last, but certainly not least, Charles Dickens’ classic tale of a mad woman turned loose on an unsuspecting boy in “Great Expectations.” This is a tale of an embittered woman, jilted at the altar by her fiancée 20 years before who, driven to madness, freezes time for her world at the exact moment when she was last alive in her heart. She leaves all the wedding decorations, to include the cake, to rot and decay just as she rots and decays still wearing her wedding dress. Into the life of this madwoman come Pip, who Miss Havisham uses in her plot to get revenge on all men by getting him to fall in love with her lovely ward Estella and having Estella rebuff his love over and over. Miss Havisham revels in the scene, like a sick play she is directing as she tells Pip, “Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces—and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper—love her, love her, love her!” (Dickens). For Pip, this torture goes on for years and finally when he visits Miss Havisham some year later he finds her much as he left her, still crazy. Dickens uses the main theme of Miss Havisham’s obsession as the central theme of the story which magnifies her madness even more.

As seen above, male and female writers tend to make different assumptions of how to create female characters which are plagued by one form or another of madness or mental instability. Female writers tend to couch the mental instability within the context of the story sometimes completely obscuring it until the very end as Rita Britz does with Nora. Male writers, on the other hand, tend to use the madness of their female creations as the main and driving forces for the story. Both Miss Havisham and Annie Wilkes fit this category very well. Whatever the outcome of the writing, writers, male or female, always create characters that both shock and intrigue the reader with their level of madness.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” The Kate Chopin International Society. https://www.katechopin.org/the-story-of-an-hour/. Accessed March 28, 2017.

Dickens, Charles. “Great Expectations. 1861.” London and New York: Norton (1999).

King, Stephen. Misery. 1987. New York: Signet (1988).

Kubuitsile, Lauri, and Joanne Hichens. The Bed Book of Short Stories, edited by Lauri Kubuitsile, and Joanne Hichens, Modjaji Books, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, Accessed March 28, 2017.

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