The not-so-neat "gender divide" in fiction

Ruth Franklin begins her review of Jeffrey Eugenides's novel The Marriage Plot in the December 1 New Republic with a "truism":

Women write about love and marriage; men write about everything else. Like all truisms, this one is best served with a heaping spoonful of caveats, but they don't alter its essential flavor.

She cites evidence, drawing on the reading list of Eugenides's main character:

Dickens, Trollope, the Brontes, Austen, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Henry James: with one important exception, they break neatly along the gender divide. Dickens and Trollope wrote about society, history, religion. For Wharton, Austen, Eliot, and the Brontes, the primary drama is a woman's choice of husband -- the marriage plot.

Henry James is the exception she mentions, and the other ladies can fend for themselves, but I must register an objection on behalf of George Eliot, whose name, I feel, is being taken in vain here. Dickens writes about "society, history, religion," but Eliot writes about "a woman's choice of husband"? Really? You could say that Middlemarch is largely concerned with young women and their marital choices, but you can't say that Middlemarch is not about "society." You could perhaps say that Adam Bede's "primary drama is a woman's choice of husband," provided you had a flexible notion of "primary" and "woman" and "husband." But if you're looking for a novel about "society, history, religion," what about Daniel Deronda? Or Romola? Or Felix Holt? Would they get filed under "choosing a husband" if George Eliot's pseudonym had never been cracked? And then there's The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, no more principally focused on "a woman's choice of husband" than is, say, Great Expectations. In short, I think Franklin might need to check her bookshelf again.

There's nothing wrong with writing principally about marriage and love, I should add. Dismissing domestic matters as unworthy of great fiction is an old excuse for marginalizing women's writing (as we've already discussed). Franklin's description is certainly true of Jane Austen, to take another of her examples, and there's no need to pretend otherwise; a great novel about a woman's choice of a husband is a great novel, and it need not stand aside for a mediocre one about world history. But I think this demonstrates why breezy generalizations about women writers vs. men writers are insidious even when they're not inherently disparaging. Franklin brings this one up so that she might go on to say that Eugenides is an exception (the review's title is, heh heh, "The Hermaphrodite"). The categorization of Eliot et al. was not meant to be controversial. I believe it goes to show that, even if you think you've applied a sufficiently heaping spoonful of caveats, a truism like this one may start doing your thinking for you, to the point where you can stumble on a significant counterexample and never even notice it.

(For further reading on a somewhat related topic, I recommend the critical essay "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," by Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot.)

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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