The power of women’s words: Two brave books

From Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, many groundbreaking novels about the lives of women have been targeted (successfully and unsuccessfully) for banning: they have been attacked for being allegedly politically incendiary, anti-christian or pornographic.

Here are my two favourite banned books by women, published a century apart, and equally controversial for their honest exploration of women’s roles as wives and mothers, sexuality and suicide:

1) Kate Chopin: The Awakening (1899)

Quotes:

“Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inner life which questions.”

“She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them…”

“…she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.”

“Her arms and legs were growing tired. She thought of Leonce and the children. They were part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.”

“He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand.”

~Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier’s spiritual and sexual awakening–and her tragic decision to take her own life. When it was published, the book was considered scandalous for its honest portrayal of a woman whose desires and actions conflicted with social norms expected of middle/upper women in the 1890s (source 1, source 2). The novel was allegedly removed from library shelves in Chopin’s home town of St. Louis. It remained out-of-favour and out-of-print for more than a century in the U.S. Sadly, Chopin never wrote another book.

It has also been challenged in more recent years. According to the American Library Association, The Awakening was challenged for not portraying “christian values” by a parent at a US school in 2006.

Despite the furor around the book, Kate Chopin was not considered a social reformer in the traditional sense–but her words, her story, were revolutionary for the time:

“Her goal was not to change the world but to describe it accurately, to show people the truth about the lives of women and men in the nineteenth-century America she knew…She was among the first American authors to write truthfully about women’s hidden lives, about women’s sexuality, and about some of the complexities and contradictions in women’s relationships with their husbands.” ~Bernard Koloski, editor, katechopin.org

2) Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Quotes:

“The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.”

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.” 

“I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” 

~The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates a dystopian fictional world where women’s only function is to breed.

Need I say more?

For its allegedly offensive language, anti-Christian overtones, violence and explicit sexuality, The Handmaid’s Tale has earned the mantle of being one of the most-challenged books of our time. “It was listed on the American Library Association’s 100 most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000 and 2000-2009, challenged because it was claimed to be anti-Christian and pornographic” (Source). It has been challenged by Canadian parents and banned (temporarily) in several US schools.

How does Atwood respond to this continuing controversy? She says the details of the story are not figments of her imagination, they are actually based in reality. In The Guardian, Atwood writes:

“I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.”

Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction…

2 comments

  1. Two outstanding books, and I’m not sure that The Awakening fully gets the credit it deserves. Deeply depressing to hear of that 2006 challenge. It’s usually a positive thing to say that a book is still relevant, but terribly sad in the case of Kate Chopin’s work.

    Another excellent novel is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilmore Perkins, written around the same time as The Awakening. Just in case you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend.

    • Depressing for sure. We have come a long way since Chopin’s time, but still there are people who just don’t get it! I have The Yellow Wallpaper somewhere, must get it out and read it! Thanks for the suggestion.

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