July Research & Travel Update – Women’s Solidarity in Contemporary Fiction

Tomorrow, I leave to travel first to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto, Ontario, and then to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America in Cambridge, MA. In Toronto I’ll be exploring Margaret Atwood’s papers, looking into the context of her thoughts while writing The Handmaid’s Tale. Being able to see and read firsthand her process will enrich my understanding of her motivation behind writing the novel and the communication of its ultimate theme. In Cambridge, I will be researching more into the overall context of the feminist movement and feminist struggles in the 1980s, giving me further background for the time period in which all three of the novels I am focusing on were written. I’m looking at a variety of documents, including transcripts of interviews conducted as part of feminist oral history projects, letters to the editor of Ms. magazine, and the personal papers of feminist journalist and historian Ruth Rosen. I’m excited to see what I discover in these archives, and I think a deeper understanding of the context of the time period will add another dimension to my literary analysis.

In regards to my literary analysis, this past month I’ve been closely re-reading my three primary texts. One thing I’ve noticed is the appearance of pairs of women who are opposites in each novel. In The Handmaid’s Tale, there are the pairs of Offred and Serena Joy and Offred and Ofglen. In The Bean Trees there are the pairs of Taylor and Lou Ann and Taylor and Esperanza. In The Color Purple, these pairs are primarily between Celie and Shug, Celie and Nettie, and also between Sofia and Squeak to a lesser extent. Basically, what each author seems to be doing is pairing up and contrasting the heroine of the novel with other women that are a large part of her daily life. The women are paired in regards to their difference; an example would be that the heroine is silent and meek where her counterpart is vocal and assertive. The interesting part of this is that these pairings of women are not always set up to be complimentary, especially in the case of a pairing like Offred and Serena Joy – they are at odds for most of the novels. But as the novels develop, each half of the pair extends assistance to her partner, a decision which helps herself whether she intended it to or not. This seems to support my theory that women’s solidarity is being presented as essential to women’s success, and I’m excited to move on to some literary criticism and think more about this.


  1. danaflorczak says:

    Hi Heather! The dichotomy you mention is definitely something I’ve been thinking about, although it does seem to take a slightly different form in these novels. Maybe because they are written by female authors, the novels take a different perspective on pairs of women? I’m not sure, since I haven’t really gotten into this aspect yet, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in thinking about. I hope everything is going well with your research!

  2. danaflorczak says:

    I’m excited to hear that you are also interested in finding out more about the motivations and influences behind an author’s work. I think it’s really important to know how experiences at the time shaped someone’s writing and directed its meaning which still carries through to today. I hope you enjoyed your visit to Yale’s library and that it was helpful!

  3. Hi! I really enjoyed reading your blog post and research update, especially your exciting plans to travel to the libraries in Canada and Ontario. Studying manuscripts at such specialized libraries is a great way to get unique and specific information about your topic. I also love how you plan on using your studies of the manuscripts to study your writer’s processes and motivations, especially with Margaret Atwood in the Handmaid’s Tale. Additionally, your determination to study rare papers relating to the history and context of your primary author’s time periods is a great way to immerse yourself in the world of the writers that you are studying, I hope it went well for you!

    I was particularly excited to hear about your plans to travel to these libraries and study manuscripts there because I, too, will be traveling to specialized libraries to study manuscripts and original documents for my research. I am writing my honors thesis this summer on William Carlos Williams, the poet-physician who wrote numerous medical narratives uniting his two careers, and one of my main focuses is how he communicated his medical experiences via the language of poetry and prose. I will be visiting the Beinecke Rare Book library at Yale University in a few days to look at his drafts and manuscripts of his short stories, hopefully getting a better idea of how his medical experiences influenced his writing, and how his thoughts regarding these experiences evolved over the course of his process. Its cool to see other students having similar experiences in their own research 🙂

  4. htlawrence says:

    Hi Dana!

    I’m glad that your research is going well! Your observation about how women are paired off and polarized in the novels that you are studying is very interesting. It reminds me of how society often idealizes one role for women at the expense of another– “Madonna” vs. “Whore” or Career Woman vs. Stay-at-Home Mom –though as you’ve pointed out the pairs in these books do not necessarily idealize one woman at the expensive of the other and actually can use these dynamics to emphasize women’s solidarity.



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