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A Feminist Reading of the Women Figures in Lillian Hellman’s Five Plays

Author: ZhangMingHua
Tutor: LiuFengShan
School: Liaocheng University
Course: English Language and Literature
Keywords: feminism patriarchy matriarch second sex new woman
Type: Master's thesis
Year: 2010
Downloads: 60
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American playwright Lillian Hellman presents a vivid picture of Southern American women’s living conditions in patriarchal society in five of her plays—The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, Watch on the Rhine and The Autumn Garden—including the following: their status in the patriarchal family, their different responses to patriarchy, and their quest for female identity. This dissertation is a feminist reading of these portrayals in Hellman’s five plays throughout three different generations of women figures including the grandmothers, the mothers, and the daughters.This paper includes three main parts. The first part is introduction which reviewed the literary achievements of the five plays and rearranged the criticism on them since they were put on stage.The second part is the main body of this paper, composed of three chapters. The first chapter is mainly about women in the grandmother generation who are the matriarchs living under the shadows of patriarchy all along. They indulge in maintaining the values and living principles of the patriarchy by imposing the living conditions and the spirit of patriarchy onto the younger generations. They do this both consciously and unconsciously. The grandmothers, who are actually matriarchs living under the shadows of their dead husbands, fall into two groups. One is the puppets of the patriarchy, represented by Mrs. Mary Ellis in The Autumn Garden and Mrs. Hortie Randolph in Watch on the Rhine. These women inherit their dead husbands’wealth and patriarchal mind-set which they further express as their own spirit; thus, they become the puppets of the patriarchs and the tools of maintaining patriarchy. The second group includes representative figures like Mrs. Amelia Tilford in The Children’s Hour and Fanny Farrelly in Watch on the Rhine. These women once played the same roles as the two previously mentioned grandmothers who are active in maintaining the patriarchy. However, they are finally enlightened and choose to bravely make up for their mistakes when they realize the harm that they have done to the younger generations by perpetuating the patriarchal order. The second chapter is mainly the analysis of women in the mother generation who are forced to live in the heavy shackles of patriarchy. They are harshly abused and crushed by patriarchal men who still adhere to the patriarchal values; falling prey to these men, they become victims of male domination and supremacy. These women also fall into two groups. One group chooses to escape from this harsh reality, represented by Lavinia in Another Part of the Forest and Birdie in The Little Foxes. They are completely neglected and emotionally and spiritually crushed by the patriarchs to the extent of being viewed as unnecessary, living life like encaged birds. Bearing the heavy shackles imposed on them by the preeminence of patriarchal type men, they found no way out except through escaping reality and being obsessed with fantasies, religion, or losing themselves in alcohol. The other kind of mothers includes women like Regina in both Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes who also live lives like encaged birds in the patriarchal families. Yet they rise from an oppressed state to become oppressors themselves by avenging the domineering men with tricks actually learned from them. In doing so, they ultimately become winners in fighting against the oppressing patriarchs. However, they are still trapped in patriarchal views and lifestyles because this is where they learned their tricks.The third chapter is mainly on women in the daughter generation who are completely free from patriarchal restraints, seeking unremitting freedom, independence and female identity. These women are the new women that Lillian Hellman intends to depict; they also fall into two types. One type has representatives like Karen Wright in The Children’s Hour and Sophie Tuckerman in The Autumn Garden. These women do not live on others’charity or depend on men. Instead they seek financial and spiritual independence which thus bring self-determination and dignity. Another type is represented by Alexandra Giddens in The Little Foxes and Sara Müller in Watch on the Rhine who give up the financial comforts provided by their patriarchal families which they are determined to break up. They become very aware of social injustice and inequality and decide to fight for the freedom of the oppressed in general.The last part is conclusion in which the thesis of this paper will be summarized generally. By combining the women’s circumstances in Lillian Hellman’s time, this part explains more about the thesis of this dissertation, that is, Lillian Hellman’s denouncement of the puppet-like matriarchs, her sympathy for the abused women and her praise for the new women.

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