Women In Literature Essay

The changing role of women in literature from the late 8th century B. C. to the
4th century A. D. is evident in that women become even more subservient in later
works. This is portrayed in the works The Odyssey by Homer and Sakuntala by
Kalidasa. Women are treated more like slaves in Sakuntala, while they are seen
more like equals in The Odyssey. However, in Sakuntala, women are given more
responsibilities, suggesting that people of the time viewed women capable of
doing more things and perhaps more intelligent, instead of being seen as
ornamental, as in The Odyssey. The Odyssey was written in a time when men played
the dominant role. In ancient Greece, women occupied a subservient position.

Society was organized and directed by men, and all of the most important
positions in society were held by men. Women were valued, but they participated
in the affairs of the world only when they had the permission or open approval
of the men who directed their lives. The literature of this time illustrates
these social conventions. No reader of The Odyssey can help having vivid
memories of the poem’s outstanding female characters. There are many women in
The Odyssey and all of them contribute in meaningful ways to the development of
the action. In addition, the poet treats them seriously and with respect, as if
there were no difference between his attitude toward them and his feelings
toward the men. Among the memorable women in the poem are included: Nausica, the
innocent young girl; Arete, the wise queen and mother; Kirke and Kalypso, the
mysterious temptresses; Penelope, the model of devotion and fidelity; Helen, the
respectable middle-class matron; and others, like Eurykleia and Melantho, who
have much smaller roles, but equally well defined personalities. Finally, there
is Athena, the goddess, who more than any other of these women, is intelligent,
sophisticated, and independent, just like the way modern society has come to see
women. The influential feminine roles in The Odyssey also have important effects
upon the whole poem. It is in The Odyssey that such ideas as love, family
loyalty, and devotion, and other such important ethical attitudes, are
illustrated. It is the presence of these unconscious moral lessons that makes
The Odyssey so unique to its genre. In a way, The Odyssey is not just the tale
of the wanderings of Odysseus. The poet has made it, also, into a sort of
“catalogue of women,” in which he examines women of all kinds and from
all walks of life. These feminine portraits are almost always objective and
fair; Homer never made judgments, and each of these women has a certain appeal.

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It is interesting, however, that the woman who is most worthy of respect and
affection is not a mortal. Homer seems to comment that no human being could
develop herself in this way. His admiration for Athena is made even more evident
by the fact that she, and not Penelope or another woman, is the heroine of the
poem and the sole companion and confidante of Odysseus. It is only in our modern
world that women have been given the opportunity to fully utilize their talent
and ability, in order to become equal and contributing members of society, like
Athena seems to be. In Sakuntala women are portrayed to play more of a
subservient role than they were in The Odyssey. Even though the women in The
Odyssey are looked upon merely as someone to cook and clean and bear the
children, they play major roles in the poem. In Sakuntala the women play no
major roles in the poem, at least not anything like the women played in The
Odyssey. Sakuntala herself plays a very demeaning role being forced to do all
the chores, the gathering of food, and the manual labor around the house. This
is much different than in The Odyssey where the man was the one who did most of
the chores, brought home the food, and most of the manual labor about the house.

In ancient Greek times, women were seen as more delicate and placed figurative
pedestals. They were expected to take care of the house, but this only included
making sure everything ran smoothly, and delegating chores and responsibilities.

They were not actually expected to do the manual labor themselves. Some of the
important women in Sakuntala include: Sakuntala, the lover of nature and the
prospective heroine of the play; Anasuya and Priyamvada, aides of Sakuntala and
women you help in her chores; and Mother Gautami the first hand maiden of father
Kanva and caregiver of Sakuntala. Even though they are seen as more subservient
and have to perform more of the meaningless tasks they are still valued and
loved. This is seen through the love that Dusyanta feels for Sakuntala and also
in the despair he shows when he realizes he has turned her away. The changing
role of women in literature can be seen by reading and comparing Homer’s The
Odyssey and Kalidasa’s Sakuntala. The women in both works are highly valued the
men close to them but not as much in society. Women can actually be seen as
regressing instead of progressing in that they are made to seem more subservient
in the later work.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. 1961, New York: Vintage-Random,
1990. Kalidasa. Sakuntala. Trans. Barbara Stoler Miller.


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