Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature

Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature

Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature

Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature

Synopsis

Bassein examines the pervasive linkage between women's sexuality and death in Western thought and literature and concludes that there is no reasonable basis for much of it. She first explores how language reveals and reinforces the bond between women and death. She then discusses traditional Christianity as a vehicle for perpetuating this tie and demonstrates that negative attitudes and brutality associated with women find expression in otherwise commendable works of art. The author examines nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction and poetry to show the different ways writers have handled women in sexual situations. Bassein concludes that tracing the origins and prevalence of the automatic association and seeking alternatives help us recognize the irrational and unconscious tendencies that are at the basis of stereotype formation and tacit acceptance of brutality.

Excerpt

A strong death-orientation, not descriptive of death and the dead per se but of persons living, colors the English language. Not registering actuality but the capacity to fantasize and exaggerate, the language has a large vocabulary and repository of images that delineate partial destruction and annihilation and suggest that we tend to be preoccupied with diminishing and destroying apart from what actually takes place in our surroundings. This vocabulary and imagery feed into and emerge from fears about ourselves and attitudes we have about people. Many of our attitudes toward women, for example, are expressed in terms we inherit, and either these attitudes or those undergoing modification are given utterance in the mainstream of speech and writing. In investigating the subject of women and death, one discovers words and images occurring along a broad spectrum from submersion to extinction. In her submersion, woman is often imagistically seen as having some part, aspect, or quality missing or as having some part, aspect, or quality taken for her totality. In both cases, she is seen as less than complete. Between submersion and extinction is an area where she is invisible. She is present but she is not seen. At the far and ultimate end of the continuum, she is simply dead and diminished to nothing. Here she is spoken of as not existing in any sense, either as apparition or as visible form when, of course, her heart still beats, her muscles flex, and often she lives what from the casual observer's point of view may be a normal life. These three areas often blur into each other and may seem at times to be almost all of one piece, or at other times each may be subdivided within its category, positives at one point and negatives at another.

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