Is Sexist Lit Gaslighting Women?

Rose Mead, “Molly Reading” (1920)


Reader and friend Sue Schmidt alerted me to a combative article in The Guardian about the misogyny of many of America’s most applauded 20th century authors, including John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Ernest Hemingway. Interestingly enough, the author gives Vladimir Nabokov a pass.

Egregious instances of sexism are to be found in all of them, Sarah Churchwell writes, and the critical world, by applauding them, causes women readers to doubt their own experiences. After all, how can women quarrel with a Nobel-prize winning author like Bellow. As a result, women are “gaslighted,” their experienced reality contradicted by powerful men. The concept originates in the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play and the 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie where a husband engineers the surroundings to make his wife think she’s crazy.

I appreciate Churchwell mentioning that Jane Eyre pushes against gaslighting. There is good good reason why Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece has been the go-to novel for unionizing governesses, suffragettes, and 1970s feminists over the years. Unfortunately, Churchwell doesn’t mention the many powerful female authors making their presences felt today. In my college’s English courses, students are more likely to encounter Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan than Updike, Roth, Bellow, and even Ernest Hemingway. Meanwhile Norman Mailer, whom Churchwell takes to task, has all but faded from view. These male voices may have contributed to patriarchy at one time, but they no longer rule the roost.

The article feels like a throwback to the 1980s, when Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) still felt like a revelation. Then again, as Donald Trump brings back 1950’s sexism, it’s true that the optimism of third-wave, “I’m-not-a-feminist-but” feminists sounds suspect. Perhaps we really do need Churchwell’s refresher course in second-wave feminism. She’s especially attuned to literary dismissals of strong women, as in this critique of Bellow’s Herzog:

Some of the worst culprits are not the misogynists of old, however, but men telling stories in the very decades that women were making real political and professional gains. Second-wave feminism spurred a backlash among certain men, including influential storytellers whose perceptions framed the cultural moment and helped create an ambient contempt for women’s perspectives. “Please, Ramona,” Saul Bellow’s Herzog thinks, “you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch – everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.” Her body is “everything”; her voice positively objectionable. Bellow won the Nobel prize for literature in 1976 for “the human understanding” in his work.

Churchwell is similarly critical of Roth (and also delivers a sarcastic dig at Jonathan Franzen):

The more feminists tried to call all this out [authors beating up on feminists], the more they were lampooned by the same male artists as overwrought and idiotic. Take Roth’s multiple prize-winning, often brilliant The Human Stain (2000), deemed by many to be a masterpiece. Most of its plot and all of its comedy rely on the farcical stupidity of an academic feminist named Delphine, who hysterically overreacts to the revelation that her colleague Coleman Silk is having an affair with a woman who works at the college as a janitor. “She understood that Coleman Silk had managed to unearth no less than a misogynist’s heart’s desire … the perfect woman to crush.” Delphine freaks out not because of her feminism, however, but rather because of her unreciprocated crush on Coleman. That’s right: women only object to sexual harassment when they feel sexually rejected. Times have changed, of course: three years ago brought us Annabel, in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (2015), a self-righteous feminist who makes men urinate sitting down as a gesture of equality.

What would happen if any of these books had ever hinted that feminism might just have a point? The problem is not an author choosing to mock a feminist; they aren’t sacred. The problem is that these stories, granted so much cultural authority, have for half a century and more been subjecting the very concept of feminists to near-universal derision, gaslighting the entire feminist perspective.

Interestingly, Churchwell defends Lolita:

Perhaps the most controversial of all is Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). Humbert Humbert is a monster and paedophile – he admits as much, regularly. But he can’t be trusted; so the question is where the book’s sympathies lie, whether Humbert or Nabokov is the misogynist. And Nabokov demonstrably embeds Lolita’s despair, powerlessness and insistent assertion of agency into the tale. The novel almost locks you into the perspective of a charming sociopath, for many readers all too closely – but it never undermines Lolita, never suggests she likes being abducted and raped, or deserves it. Indeed it makes clear how desperate she is to get away from Humbert – that he is the mad one. Nabokov doesn’t gaslight Lolita: he gaslights Humbert.

As Humbert reveals, in what may (or may not) be his moral epiphany, the great tragedy of Lolita is “the absence of her voice” – an absence that bothers many readers, as it is clearly intended to. 

Lolita is Churchwell’s exception, however. What concerns her most is that critical praise has brainwashed many women readers:

Even more frustrating, however, is that many women readily assert the importance or greatness of these books. Male readers by comparison rarely use the compliment “universal” to describe a book written by a woman: in fact, it’s difficult to recall a single instance. Women don’t have that option: if we read, we must read about men; if we think, we must think about what men think.

The power of such thinking has had dire political ramifications:

It has been much remarked that some of the most influential US male media figures who dismissed the allegations of sexual harassment against Donald Trump were themselves fired shortly thereafter for serially committing the same offense. These men’s vested interest in whether our culture takes sexual assault seriously was allowed to shape the political outcome, to put a confessed sexual assaulter in the White House, and not coincidentally to sabotage the reputation of his opponent, who just happened to be a woman. The media campaign against Hillary Clinton was nothing if not gaslighting on an epic scale.

Meanwhile the White House has just been forced, with notable reluctance, to remove not one but two senior advisers credibly accused of domestic violence. 

Churchwell concludes,

Patriarchy works unseen to valorize men’s perspective, and invalidate women’s. When we don’t recognize the way it shapes the world, then we do not understand that world properly: our perspective becomes unreliable. In other words, patriarchy continues to gaslight us all.

Since I mostly teaching older literature, I can’t say for sure which authors dominate contemporary literature syllabi. What Churchwell describes, however, sounds like the courses from my college years (1969-73) and perhaps a decade after, not what people are teaching now. Key has been the increasing diversity of faculty, who focus on the cultural and political forces at work in the literature they teach. Churchwell doesn’t mention this development.

In other words, the patriarchal narrative no longer holds unquestioned sway in college classrooms. That’s one reason why colleges are currently under attack.

This entry was posted in Bronte (Charlotte), Nabokov (Vladimir), Roth (Philip K.) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete