There is something very self-indulgent about my job as a high school English teacher. Throughout my 20-year career, I have been granted the privilege of teaching and re-visiting “the classics”. People often ask: ‘Isn’t it boring teaching the same books year after year?’ And my answer is always an emphatic, ‘No.’ The world is constantly changing, the students are different every year, and each time, I can approach the texts with an additional year of life experience. Teaching is somewhat similar to live theatre; each audience is unique, and therefore, the responses to the same material differ greatly depending on the individuals in the room. Recently, I have noticed a trend where students (and some teachers) have reacted to specific literary characters in a negative way that, upon closer examination, might not be entirely justified. Educators often emphasize the idea that “Understanding Demands Context” in order to encourage students to adjust their lens before they become a “hater” of a certain unlikeable or flawed character in a novel or a play. In my experience, I have noted that Julia from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Gertrude from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, and Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby fall into this category. I invite you to take another look at the nuances of the time periods in which these women were living, shift your perspective a little, and see these female human beings in a more empathetic light instead of simply judging their questionable behaviors using current standards.
Any teacher who has taught Orwell’s topical novel knows that it has the power to transform the ways in which students see the world. The novel, about a government’s cruel and frightening totalitarian regime, written in 1948 and originally published in 1949, is arguably more relevant than ever. Winston Smith is the novel’s protagonist; he is portrayed as ordinary and very likable because he desperately tries to cling to his humanity in a world where the ruling Inner Party aims to destroy anything and everything that makes a person human. Winston, a member of the Outer Party and middle class, is attracted to another Outer Party member named Julia. Julia differs from the male Winston in many ways and the portrayal of her character is much less flattering. Julia appears to be a good party member – she wears the scarlet sash of the Junior Anti-Sex League – but she is, in reality, “corrupt to the bones” (Orwell 132). Instead of readers applauding Julia’s crafty methods of rebellion, however, she has been criticized for being weak, unintelligent, vain and selfish. Upon closer examination, Julia is really the opposite. She is unfairly described as “not clever” (Orwell 136) and yet, she has great instincts and the inner strength to be true to herself; when Julia resists the party’s control, she does it on her terms. Julia might not be as cerebral or academic as Winston (she does fall asleep as he eagerly reads Goldstein’s book to her), but her practicality and street smarts should not be dismissed. For Julia, looking feminine makes her feel human and alive, so she buys makeup on the black market to fulfill this desire. Julia likes real things: real coffee, real sugar, real experiences (like sex) because these small luxuries and moments make her actually feel something authentic. Julia works the system, while Winston challenges it, but the two complete one another. She should not be blamed for having “no interest in Party doctrine” (Orwell 138) and although Julia does not have the passion Winston has to enlighten future generations, her attempts at survival are pragmatic and impressive.
Another female literary character who is perhaps misunderstood is Queen Gertrude, Prince Hamlet’s mother, from Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, written in the early 1600s. When the audience is introduced to the Queen at the beginning of the play, we are very much influenced by her son’s jaded perspective. Hamlet feels wounded and horrified by his mother’s lack of compassion towards him at a time of genuine grief. His father, the former King of Denmark, has passed away, and the psychologically troubled Hamlet feels isolated, melancholy, and angry. The resilient Gertrude is criticized by Hamlet and audience members alike for her disloyalty to her first husband, her sexual appetite, and the “wicked speed” (Shakespeare 1.2 156) of her second marriage to Claudius, another member of the Royal Family. Claudius is appointed the new King by the Nobles, and his marriage to the former Queen solidifies this new position. What people often fail to see is the complicated situation from the Queen’s perspective. She has recently lost her husband and, most likely, has no idea how to rule Denmark on her own, given that the time period in which the play is originally set is the late Middle Ages. Gertrude is understandably overwhelmed, and the convenient and practical solution for her is to accept her brother-in-law’s hand in marriage, despite its “incestuous” (Shakespeare 1.2 157) nature. The play later proves that the society in which Gertrude lives is a male-dominated one where women are continually used as pawns in a men’s game. So, while it is easy to side with Hamlet and view Gertrude as a “most pernicious woman” (Shakespeare 1.5 106), it is not an entirely fair assessment. If she is unaware of Claudius’ evil nature, which I believe she is, should she be criticized for falling under “the witchcraft of his wit” (Shakespeare 1.5 44)? It seems that all of Denmark has fallen under the same spell; Claudius’ smooth and polished demeanor and confidence fool everyone, and it is unfair that audiences target the Queen more harshly.
Furthermore, Daisy Buchanan, from Fitzgerald’s 1920s Jazz Age novel, The Great Gatsby, is probably one of the most hated female characters in classic literature. Readers despise the vacuous Daisy for her sense of superiority, racist beliefs, and utter carelessness. I agree that it is difficult to like or empathize with someone as spoiled and shallow as Daisy when she speaks about her “white girlhood” (Fitzgerald 24) in Louisville, but it does seem that she may simply be echoing the racist views of her wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan, a misogynous, aggressive and despicable human being. It is important to note that most of the characters in Fitzgerald’s novel, which is narrated by Nick Carraway, are unforgivably racist or anti-semitic and the novel has certainly been criticized for its lack of political correctness. Daisy’s problematic views are, in a sense, no worse than any of the other characters. As well, Daisy is somewhat of a prisoner in American high society and her marriage to Tom is utterly miserable, despite the outward appearance that she has everything she desires. She confides to Nick that Tom was absent for the birth of their daughter and that she hopes her daughter will grow up to be “a fool- that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (Fitzgerald 21). When one recognizes the sad truth of this comment, it is possible to feel some empathy for the flawed Daisy. Daisy has been characterized as an unworthy recipient of Gatsby’s love and devotion, when Jay Gatsby is the one clearly at fault for idolizing a fallible human being and worshiping her as if she were a goddess. His pursuit of Daisy is compared to the “following of a grail” (Fitzgerald 156), an almost religious experience for him to elevate his soul, while he places her on the highest pedestal. Gatsby objectifies Daisy in his search for purpose and meaning but it is the pragmatic and privileged Daisy, his object of desire, who is usually the victim of the reader’s criticism. Readers cannot seem to get past the fact that Daisy allows Gatsby to take responsibility for her mess, but it is Gatsby who willingly accepts the role of the chivalrous knight and takes the fall for the “golden girl” (Fitzgerald 127).
There is no doubt that Julia, Gertrude and Daisy are flawed individuals; they are all human after all, but their behaviors actually make sense given the context, and their tenacious need to survive the male-controlled societies in which they live. Before you condemn these women, however, note that their male counterparts are not exemplary either, and yet, we manage to somehow feel empathy for many of them despite their obvious shortcomings. So, before you agree with Hamlet and just accept that, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Shakespeare 1.2 146), I encourage you to adjust your lens, just a little, and try to see things from a position other than the male gaze.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925
Orwell, George. 1984. London: Penguin Books, 2008.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. Canada: HBJ, 1988