Helping to sort out women's place throughout history and myth

September 19, 1993|By Diane Scharper

HEROINES: DEMIGODDESS, PRIMA DONNA, MOVIE STAR

Norma Lorre Goodrich

HarperCollins

282 pages. $23

According to the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, men become poets because they possess an elevated nature. Women think mostly about sex and are flirtatious. They are fit only to regulate private society -- showing men how to eat or what to wear. Men, though, must show women who they are.

In her latest book, "Heroines: Demigoddess, Prima Donna, Movie Star," Norma Lorre Goodrich discusses the nature of woman as seen by some of the world's greatest writers: Homer, Euripides, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hardy, Flaubert and Tolstoy, as well as Rousseau.

Dr. Goodrich is professor emeritus at the Claremont Colleges. Among her many books are a literary biography of Charles, Duke of Orleans; two studies of mythology; a study of the hero; several histories, including one of King Arthur and one of Queen Guinevere, and several books having to do with women's studies.

Thus she often gives a literary and historical perspective to Jungian psychology, showing the relationship between racial memory and myth. So do literature, art, religion, culture -- all of which create and re-create the collective unconscious.

Lately, Dr. Goodrich has been looking at myth from a feminist perspective. She's been doing for the heroine, or trying to, what Joseph Campbell did for the hero, i.e. examining archetypes, putting prehistory into historical perspective.

Dr. Goodrich believes that women, like men, possess an elevated nature and are fit to accept "heroic ideals" and to become "masters of community . . . governors of nations." But first, women must know themselves. A good way to begin is through the study of the heroines of myth, history, literature and culture. "Heroines" provides such a study.

The book is divided into eight sections, each covering a category of heroine: Good women, lovers, earth mothers, prostitutes, death queens, witches, Amazons and goddesses of justice. Each category is followed by a reading list. The book ends with a lengthy appendix.

Dr. Goodrich traces the development of heroines -- women such as Alcestis, Antigone, Astrea, Cleopatra, Electra, Isolde, Lucrece, Medea, Medusa -- from antiquity to the 20th century. How, the author asks, do the great women of prehistory and ancient history affect those who follow them? What does the Byzantine Empress Theodora say to contemporary woman? What about the warrior saint, Joan of Arc? Or such literary characters as Madame Bovary and Moll Flanders? Ultimately, what do these women mean to the average woman?

Alcestis, for instance, is the archetype of the good woman. Her story, first told by the Greeks, is one of self-sacrifice: She is the youthful wife who offered her life to save her aging husband from death. She did this, even though her young children would be deprived of a mother. Many great writers have subsequently retold this story, which, Dr. Goodrich contends, instructs girls and women to sublimate their own desires for those of their parents, children and husbands.

Dr. Goodrich is able to take a theme and trace it from its earliest beginnings in Greek myth to the present. She gives interesting perspectives on her subjects, discussing Princess Isolde, for instance, as a Druid priestess, not as an adulteress; showing us St. Joan of Arc's place in the framework of female archetypes; or showing us how Faulkner's heroine, Addie Bundren, fits in.

At times, though, Dr. Goodrich becomes mired in her subject -- taking several pages just to show how Webster and Roget define "heroine." She speaks of "a crying need" for women to write about issues concerning women. Yet she doesn't seem to realize that women are doing much writing about these issues. She, herself, is one of those women.

It is ironic, therefore, that Dr. Goodrich believes women to be forced by sexism into "conformity without objection in dress, homemaking, wifely duties, parental obligations, sexual service, obedience, acceptance of male or majority rule." Moreover, today's woman is not a "smiling, speechless, overweight, and outwardly complacent nonperson," as she puts it.

Finally, sentences such as the following are boorish: "After teaching for forty-five years in French and American classrooms . . . I have known more young women from all backgrounds, and know their minds more intimately than a psychoanalyst."

Dr. Goodrich may know much. But she doesn't always know how to express it.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

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