Fiction and Poetry

Literary sources can provide useful information about women of a particular era or place in world history. Novels, short stories, and poetry created by women express their perspectives on a range of social and cultural issues. Although these texts are works of imagination, women have used them to voice their thoughts on a wide range of issues.

Tale of Genji Woodcut

In many historical contexts, women lacked a public platform to express their opinions on social, cultural, or political issues. In some cases, their literary works allowed them to reach an audience—if limited to those who were literate—through a medium that might have seemed trivial to the men who controlled access to the public sphere. For example, Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of the Genji is thought to be the first novel in world literature. Written by a low-ranking female aristocrat, Tale of the Genji provides insight on the court culture of medieval Japan.

When analyzing a literary source, it is important to gather as much information as possible about the author and the circumstances of the source’s creation. Next, consider the ways in which the source depicts women. Are women primary actors or secondary actors in a narrative? Does the narrative focus on issues and concerns that are related to women’s lives? If so, what is the perspective of the author on these issues? Is there consistent imagery or symbolism related to women? Does the author challenge or affirm dominant cultural attitudes about women?

In addition to considering the content and message of a literary source, think about the audience for novels, short stories, and poems. Who read this source? Did it have a major public influence? Was it read only by women, or by men and women?

Although sources created by women allow us a more direct insight into the concerns, values, and social customs of women in different historical contexts, literary sources need not have been written by or primarily about women to reveal the prevalent attitudes of a culture toward women. Male literary figures create characters, storylines, and poems that convey information about women, even when that information seems tangential to the major theme of the work.