Recurring concepts in novels about women’s solidarity

As I finish up my final term studying abroad at Oxford, questions and concepts that arose during my tutorials here are serving as important starting points for my research. I had the opportunity to create my tutorials this term, and I asked for one on “Female Friendships in Late 20th-century Literature,” thinking ahead to my thesis. We covered a large range of novels from the 1960s-2010s by British, American and Italian authors that greatly differ from my thesis’ focus on 1980s American literature. But there are several similar themes or ideas that appear in the texts I read for the tutorial that are also present within the texts I will be studying for my thesis (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Bean Trees, and now also The Color Purple).

The first recurring concept I noticed was the effect that the absence of women’s solidarity can have upon women within the novel and their success at moving past the adversity they are facing. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the absence of solidarity – shown through the Aunts at the Rachel and Leah re-education center indoctrinating and punishing the future handmaids – has a great impact on Offred. It makes her and the other handmaids afraid to visibly band together – but it also makes the eventual solidarity she does discover with Ofglen even more impactful. Taylor in The Bean Trees and Celie in The Color Purple have similar experiences, where they initially suffer physically and/or emotionally in the absence of female support or solidarity. However, when they eventually find that solidarity and support, their lives and personalities, as well as their successes, are drastically influenced. It is almost as if without the presence of women’s solidarity, they are living in black and white, and finding those supportive communities brings their lives into technicolor. So, can it be said that the initial cruel absence or deprivation of women’s solidarity and support is actually a necessary factor in building those supportive communities?

The second concept is that of friendships with siblings or parents. Can you be friends with your own family in the same way that you would be friends with someone not related to you? Does being a blood relative strengthen or weaken that relationship? And how do these family-friendships impact the power of women’s solidarity within the novel? The third concept is the idea of the reader as another friend or part of the relationship being portrayed in the novel. And, in the same vein, what is the author’s role as a friend or element of the friendship depicted? All three novels I am focusing on are told in what is basically first-person recollection. The reader then becomes a confidant, or at least feels they are one, for the main character. That brings the reader into the novel in a way that becomes very personal. I am interested in exploring how this choice by all three authors impacts the message – of the power and potential of women’s solidarity in fiction – that I posit they are espousing.

As 2017 progresses, female friendships are becoming more prevalent in pop culture and in everyday conversations. Margaret Atwood is publishing think pieces on the new relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale in the Trump administration, and the novel has just been adapted into a TV series. Susan Faludi’s Backlash is topping reading lists once again. While the prevalence – and current relevance – of discussions of women’s solidarity and backlash against women is increasing, these concepts and discussions are not new. Their manifestations may have changed, but as I recognized during my tutorial, there have been similar discussions since the 1960s and even earlier in countries all around the world. Seeing the previously mentioned three main concepts or ideas I am using to guide my research appear consistently in novels of different styles from different times underscored the continued relevance of issues of women’s solidarity.

What does this mean for my own research? I think this cycle of resurgence for these discussions will add an interesting element of focus. How impactful can writing about women’s solidarity be if not too much has changed since the issue of women’s solidarity and its power was first raised? How have discussions of women’s solidarity and representations of it in literature changed? And is this change due to the triumph of women’s solidarity in certain areas? The novels I am focusing on are all from the same time period and thus presumably provoked or influenced by the issues women were facing at that time. So, while I won’t be focusing on the historical evolution of women’s solidarity in literature, I think it would be helpful to keep in mind the continued relevance and appearance of the subject. I don’t think that anything is only a product of the time in which it is written, certainly these novels are not.


  1. danaflorczak says:

    Hi Heather! I actually stumbled onto this grouping of novels by accident. In high school, I did a mini “senior thesis” on female friendships in modern literature. Two of the books I happened to include were “The Bean Trees” and “The Color Purple.” Additionally, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is one of my all-time favorite novels. When I was thinking of a topic to do my thesis on, I was looking into books I really enjoyed and discovered that all three of these novels share a commonality in theme and publication date, which I thought was interesting and thus directed my focus. I also think that the writing style of each novel, while different, was an important factor in my decision to focus on all three. The reader of these novels becomes a sort of friend or confidant to the narrator/heroine, which I think adds an interesting element to the women’s solidarity dynamic.

  2. htlawrence says:

    Hi Dana,

    Your research looks very interesting!I found your reference to the tradition and evolution of women’s solidarity and relationships in literature very fascinating, even if it’s not your main focus. I was also wondering, why did you choose the three books that you did? Obviously they are all authored by women and, as you mentioned, published in the same time period but was there something else that stood out about them that made you chose them over other books from that period that were also written by women?