These novels have characters dealing with the gender roles that their society holds them to. These characters, usually females, want more out of life than to live up to others expectations, and they seek more independence. Many have a feminist leaning by pointing out the areas in life where women are more limited than men.
Many narratives also show what is expected of men and how they cope with life.
Theme: Gender Roles & Feminism
The Good Earth | Pearl S. Buck
Wang Lung is a poor Chinese farmer who is about to be married to a plain slave girl, O-lan. She is a competent worker, and their first child is a boy. Their land is productive and they live frugally, so they gradually rise in the community. The narrative continues with the family’s quest to succeed, and the role that each member of the family plays.
Little Women | Louisa May Alcott
The March family is poor, and their father is away fighting in the Civil War. The daughters–Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–carry out their work responsibilities, pursue their artistic interests, and navigate the social scene.
The Edible Woman | Margaret Atwood
Marian McAlpin copes with the actions and desires of all the people around her. Her roommate, Ainsley, wants to have a baby but not get married. Her fiancé, Peter, has ideas about how a woman should act. Another man she met, Duncan, is manipulative and self-centered.
The Bride Price | Buchi Emecheta
Ezekiel Odia, the patriarch of the family, is dying. His daughter, Aku-nna, is thirteen and aware of her role: to marry and bring a good bride price and then have many sons. When Ezekiel dies, the mother brings her family back to Ibuza, their ancestral village. Aki-nna meets Chike and they develop a friendship. He is a descendant of slaves, so a relationship between the two is forbidden.
The Color Purple | Alice Walker
Fourteen year old Celie writes letters to God about her life. She was raped by her stepfather and he threatened her not to tell anyone but God. She is essentially sold to a man who beats her often. Celie is a hard worker and struggles thru her oppression.
The Left Hand of Darkness | Ursula K. Le Guin
Genly Ai is an envoy from EKumen, which includes earth, whose purpose is to open relations with other planets. He is on a mission to Gethen, a planet in an Ice Age and with an androgynous population. They only have sexual feelings a few days per month. They also have a custom of avoiding confrontation called shifgrethor.
Kitchen | Mahoko “Banana” Yoshimoto
Mikage loves kitchens of every type. Her grandmother has died, so she is alone. A man she remembers from the funeral, Yuichi, stops by to invite her to his mother’s for dinner. She loves the house’s kitchen, and is intrigued by the mother, Eriko. They invite her to come live with them.
The World According to Garp | John Irving
Jenny Fields is an independent nurse who wants a child but not a husband. She is impregnated by a brain damaged soldier and names the child T. S. Garp. Jenny becomes a feminist celebrity while Garp struggles with his writing, marriage, and children.
The Clan of the Cave Bear | Jean Auel
Ayla is a young orphan living in prehistoric times. She is eventually found by a woman named Iza, from the Clan. The group finds a large cave to make a new home after an earthquake destroyed their area. Ayla grows up with these new people, learning her role and how to contribute. She rebels against the traditional role for females and is punished for it.
Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day | Rebecca Harding Davis
Margret works a lonely, monotonous job at a weaving mill in the office. Many others work below in heat and noise and fumes. Her father can’t support the family anymore, and they have sold most of their possessions. The mill owner, Dr. Knowles, has been watching Margret for a long time, and seems to have a plan for her. She was engaged to Stephen, a man with ambitions to own the mill some day, but it was called off when her family descended into poverty.
The House of Mirth | Edith Wharton
Lily Bart is a New York society woman, unmarried and in her late twenties. She lives off of her wealthy aunt, and knows that she will have to marry well to maintain the life she’s accustomed to. She is paid attention from men–some honorable and some unsavory.
“It is so easy for a woman to become what the man she loves believes her to be!”
Daughter of Fortune | Isabele Allende
Rose and Jeremy Sommers, brother and sister, take in Eliza Sommers. Jacob, a preacher, comes to town and is attracted to Rose. Eliza is maturing, so Rose eventually tries to find her a suitor. Eliza falls in love with Joaquin, a poor young man who works for Jeremy. This sends her on a voyage.
Memoirs of a Geisha | Arthur Golden
Through interviews, Sayuri, a retired geisha, tells her life story. When she was nine, she was sent to a geisha house to work. She deals with the extensive politics of this life, and tries to pay off the expenses related to her training. She gets separated from her sister at an early age and tries to find her.
The House on Mango Street | Sandra Cisneros
Esperanza Cordero, the narrator, is a young, Mexican-American girl living in the United States. The Cordero family is poor and lives in a small, run down house on Mango Street. Esperanza is growing up, learning what it is to be a woman. This isn’t a traditionally structured novel; it’s made up of forty-four vignettes.
The Caine Mutiny | Herman Wouk
Willie Keith joins the U. S. Navy and is assigned to the Caine, a rusted out, dilapidated vessel with a reputation for being undisciplined. Captain Queeg takes over the vessel, but his men don’t respond well to his unusual behavior and obsessive discipline.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Stephen Crane
Maggie grows up on a poor tenement street in New York. Her brother Jimmie fights in the streets and becomes a bully. Her mother is an abusive drunk while her father is selfish and defeated. Maggie grows into a pretty young woman, which gives her an opportunity to escape her dismal life.
The Kitchen God’s Wife | Amy Tan
Winnie Louie is a Chinese immigrant in America. A friend persuades her to tell all her secrets to her grown daughter, Pearl. Winnie tells her life story from childhood until Pearl’s birth. She relates how she came to be married, her husband’s role in the war against the Japanese, and the abuse she suffered at his hand.
Middlemarch | George Eliot
The narrative is the story of many characters living in provincial England in the early 1830s. It begins with Dorothea Brooke, a selfless nineteen-year-old, beautiful and sincere, who is focused on helping others. Her younger sister Celia has more traditional tastes. They are visited by Sir Chettem, a handsome neighbor, and Mr. Causabon, a middle-aged rector devoted to religious history with the goal of writing a scholarly tome.
“And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better.”
Sense and Sensibility | Jane Austen
Mr. John Dashwood and his wife control the family estate. His half-sisters, Elinor and Marianne, need to find husbands to ensure their futures. Elinor is rational while Marianne is passionate. They navigate their social circle with its rules of class and relationships between men and women looking for a suitable match.
“Know your own happiness.”
In the Time of the Butterflies | Julia Alvarez
The Mirabal sisters narrate their family’s story in the Dominican Republic from 1938 to 1994. Rafael Trujillo is the cruel dictator who exercises control over all his citizens. The sisters become involved in revolutionary activities against Trujillo.
Animal Dreams | Barbara Kingsolver
Codi returns to her hometown of Grace, Arizona to care for her father who has Alzheimer’s disease. Her sister, Hallie, moves to Nicaragua to teach the people about agricultural practices even though it’s a dangerous area. Codi meets up again with Loyd, a Native American man she has a history with. A local mining company is polluting the river and has plans to divert it, which would be devastating to the orchards.
The Bostonians | Henry James
Basil Ransom is in Boston visiting a cousin, Olive Chancellor. Basil isn’t interested in social issues, which puts him at odds with Olive, who is into women’s rights. They meet Verena Tarrant, a benevolent, humble woman. Olive and Basil each want to win her over.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall | Anne Bronte
A young widow, Mrs. Graham, moves into Wildfell Hall. The Markham’s visit, but they don’t find out much about her. She develops a social relationship with Gilbert Markham. When gossip circulates about Mrs. Graham, Gilbert confronts her about it. She says she will explain things to him, but a complication arises, preventing this.
Nervous Conditions | Tsitsi Dangarembga
Tambu relates her experiences growing up in Rhodesia in the 1960s. Her family is poor, so they can’t send her to school, choosing instead to send her brother Nhamo. She doesn’t accept that her role is simply to cook and clean, so she tries to earn money to pay her school fees. When Nhamo dies she gets the chance to attend a mission school.
Housekeeping | Marilynne Robinson
Ruth and her sister Lucille have had many caretakers since their mother killed herself. Ruth relates some of her family history. Eventually, their aunt Sylvie comes to look after them. She is a transient woman, who keeps house in an unusual way.
Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind | Suzanne Fisher Staples
Shabanu, eleven, lives with her extended family in a tribal society in Pakistan. Her sister Phulan, thirteen, is getting married shortly, and the family is preparing her dowry. Shabanu is independent, and doesn’t want her freedom curtailed by marriage, which is rapidly approaching. Her father is steeped in a traditional life.
Bread Givers | Anzia Yezierska
It is the 1890s in a Jewish ghetto in Manhattan. The family is poor. The father, according to tradition, doesn’t work as he is a Rabbi. His daughters earn whatever money they can and hand it over to him. He rejects his daughter’s suitors if they cannot pay a sufficient dowry. He also interferes as a matchmaker. His youngest daughter, Sara, is independent-minded and resists her father’s direction. She makes plans to change her life.
Read “Bread Givers” (Chapter 1)
Excellent Women | Barbara Pym
It is 1950s England where Mildred Lathbury lives in a humble building. Her life changes when she meets her new neighbours, the Napiers. The husband, Rocky, is handsome and charming. Thru them she also meets Everard Bone, an anthropologist. Mildred is an “excellent woman”, the kind of woman that men take for granted: those who make tea, organize church functions, and do myriad favors and thankless tasks for others.
How Green Was My Valley | Richard Llewellyn
Huw tells the story of his life in his Wales valley with his parents and siblings. His father and older brothers worked in the coal mine. Huw’s brother Davy led the workers in two strikes for higher wages. Some of the workers favoured unionizing and Socialism, which divided the family somewhat. The slag, a by-product of the mining operations, turned the valley black.
The Help | Kathryn Stockett
It is 1962 in Mississippi. Abileen, an African-American, works as a maid for a white family, the Leefolts. Another maid, Minny, is Abileen’s best friend. She is more outspoken, which has affected her employment. Skeeter,more liberal than her friends, graduated from college and is unmarried; she is looking for a job at a newspaper. At a weekly bridge game, Skeeter’s friend Hilly talks about her initiative – she wants all white homes to have separate bathrooms for the hired help.
March | Geraldine Brooks
John March is a company chaplain for the Union army. He has observed a crew collecting dead bodies, and has spent time with the wounded. He recognizes the field hospital as the home of Clement, a man he spent time with many years earlier. They shared a love of reading, and discussed slavery. He sees many injustices, remembers how he met his wife, and looks for opportunities to teach.
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