The Classic Feminist Male Authors at Country House Library

4 min read

Judging classic novels with a modern feminist perspective is an often complex process. Many female characters and their male authors existed within patriarchal societies and as such, female experiences were often inaccurately portrayed.

Despite this complexity, a number of classic male authors broke away from patriarchal modes in favour of more feminist characters and themes. These authors were capable of writing realistic depictions of women, often giving their female characters depth of personality and fierce independence.

The Feminist Lens

Among these male feminist authors were famous writers such as Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, William Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy. Their respective works offer an insight into a more balanced world, where female characters are able to step beyond the prevailing attitudes of their time.


Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Madame Emma Bovary is presented as a strong character who rebels against the traditional female values of her time. Flaubert writes her as a masculine woman who favours male traits and fashions despite her feminine way of thinking.

The inability to truly function as a woman in 19th century society becomes a key issue in the book. The lack of control Emma holds over her own life breeds a deep dissatisfaction. Her romantic illusions of what life should be quickly shatter and boredom and depression take hold.

Throughout his book, Flaubert criticises sexist societies. He uses his central character to suggest that women should be able to exercise their freedom and not be punished for it. Emma becomes imprisoned by the social constructs of her time and by her own idealised illusions of sensuality and passion.

Tess of the D'Ubervilles, Thomas Hardy

The unequal treatment of women is a key theme in Hardy’s famous novel. His liberal views on gender politics are conveyed through his central character, Tess. Tess is presented as an intelligent and determined woman whose resilience in the face of adversity is admirable.

Hardy’s masculine perspective does not dominate his writing. He instead writes intelligently about the female experience and gives great depth to Tess’s character. Though innocent, she is also persistent and will not succumb to an undesirable life.

These wilful desires condemn her from the start. Her tragic flaw is not that she is pure and innocent, but rather that she is a woman. Hardy uses Tess’s experiences to criticise the unequal condemnation and victimisation of women and redefine the meaning of purity.

The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

The Portrait of  Ladyis another novel guided by a more liberal attitude towards gender politics. The heroine of the story, Isobel Archer, is independent, free spirited and beautiful, a modern woman who challenges traditional Victorian ideals. Isobel rejects the ideology of marriage, refusing to surrender her freedoms.

James presents his criticism of social power structures through Isobel’s independence. Such independence comes through the fulfilment of her personal desires rather than confirming to the expectations of her society.

However, while she chooses to subvert expectation, she doesn’t completely cast aside feminine ideals. She both accepts and rejects the constraints of her gender, suggesting that women can be both assertive and open to cultural expectations.

Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence

The question of whether Lawrence wrote with feminist values in mind isn’t a straightforward one. Over the years, Lawrence has been criticised for his presentation of gendered bodies and sex, leading critics and readers to debate whether he is really a feminist male writer.

In Women in Love, his presentation of the Brangwen sisters suggests his support for female strength and independence. Though the novel opens with the sisters working on their embroidery, like many women of their time, their discussion of marriage is far from  conventional.

The elder Brangwen sister, Ursula, refuses to conform to traditional female values. She rejects domesticity, choosing to live in a world guided by her own will despite the challenges along the way. Though the story is set against a patriarchal background, Lawrence presents his female characters as self-conscious, partially emancipated individuals.

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare

Though there are many more male than female roles in Shakespeare’s plays, his female characters are often given strong voices. One such character is Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing,a witty, intelligent and outspoken woman who defies the traditions of her time.

During the 19th century, Beatrice became a particularly problematic character for critics. Her attitude and actions broke down gender barriers and shattered conventional images of womanhood.

Through Beatrice, Shakespeare exposed the truth about gender roles and inequality in Elizabethan society, an issue that remained prevalent throughout the centuries. The play deals with the contemporary political movements of his time while also remaining timeless.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is a passionate woman who is unable to take control of her own life due to social barriers. Her desires are condemned by all those around her who maintain conventional ideas of sin and morality.

Like other authors on this list, Tolstoy uses Anna’s experiences to highlight the problem of gender inequality in Imperial Russia. He exposes the tragic issue of women and men being treated differently for committing the same sin.

Tolstoy’s ability to express the female experience is outstanding and he brings gender issues to light in a beautiful though tragic way. He writes about the constraints of marriage and the marginalisation of divorced women like Anna who sought independence but in doing so hurt both themselves and others.


Truly Feminist?

Feminism is a complex movement and to decide whether these male authors are truly feminist or not is almost impossible. The novels above remain, to a certain extent, constrained by their own time and to view them with modern theories is to judge them differently than they were intended.

What can be said is that these male writers all sought to expose gender issues within their societies. Through creating strong female characters, they present the problems embedded within patriarchal societies and successfully offer insight into female minds, experiences and social roles.



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