The Representation Of Women In Utopian And Dystopian Literature

Bachelor Thesis, 2012

40 Pages, Grade: 1,8


Table of Contents


1. Introduction
1.1 Research Field
1.2 Selection of Novels
1.3 Structure and Methodology

2. Theoretical Aspects
2.1 Definition of Utopia and Dystopia
2.2 Traditional Stereotypes in Literature

3. The Representation of Women in Herland
3.1 Historical Context
3.2 A Country Called Herland
3.3 Gender
3.4 Women in Herland

4. The Representation of Women in Brave New World
4.1 Historical Background
4.2 The World State
4.3 Gender
4.4 Women in the World State

5. The Representation of Women in The Handmaid’s Tale
5.1 Historical Context
5.2 The State of Gilead
5.3 Gender
5.4 Women in Gilead

6. Discussion and Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“Until 'mothers' earn their livings, 'women' will not.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This quote of Charlotte Perkins Gilman hints to the fact that the representation of women is determined by certain factors. To analyse these factors, the research question of this paper is: To what extent is the representation of women and their status in the fictional societies determined by gender relations in the context of the distribution of power? To explore this question the distribution of power and the resulting gender relations are regarded as important. As the quote cited above explains, women are often stereotyped according to their gender. Therefore I will observe the stereotypes to find out in which ways they are influenced by the power and gender relations, why they are used and what they can tell us about the representation of women. Moreover, the historical context in which s/he wrote the novel is assumed to be important.

1.1 Research Field

My bachelor thesis will combine the fields of Literary Studies and Gender Studies. Literature, for many centuries, has been a male dominated area. Female writers were oppressed, excluded or greeted with only a weary smile. Successful female writers, like Jane Austen, were the exception. In her last novel Persuasion, she enables her character Anne to describe the situation for women: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story, education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands”(Austen 280). Jane Austen chose the past tense as if she was optimistic for the circumstances to change.

However, the pioneer of feminist literature was Virginia Woolf. She was not only a successful female writer during the male dominated modernist period but she also influenced and empowered many women:

I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young--alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. (Woolf 133)

Virginia Woolf evoked the feeling of an ‘us’ along females and created a fundament for female writers. However, a real change of the canon did not happen until post-modernism. The feminist movements lead to a shift of female writers from ‘the margin to the centre’. Moreover, a re-reading of history and literature took place. In the 1970’s history changed into ‘herstory’, a feminist perspective focussing on the representation of women in history from a female point of view (“herstory” Oxford English Dictionary). This approach will be continued in my bachelor thesis. Moreover, in the 1980’s a second movement began to rise. The Gender-movement differentiated sex from a socially constructed identity called gender. Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman introduced the concept of „Doing Gender” (West, Zimmerman) in 1987:

Our purpose in this article is to propose an […], understanding of gender as a routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishment. We contend that the ‘doing’ of gender is undertaken by women and men whose competence as members of society is hostage to its production. Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine ‘natures’. When we view gender […] our attention shifts from matters internal to the individual and focuses on interactional and, ultimately, institutional arenas. (West, Zimmerman 4)[1]

Therefore gender is socially constructed, interactional and influenced by the ‘norm’ of how a female or male person has to behave according to the society he or she lives in. The doing of gender is influenced by institutions like the state and the media which need the people to have a clear gender identity in order to address and influence them. Also smaller institutions, like relationships, need gender as a guideline. In this thesis, I will focus on the representation of women within a gender context behind the background of the power relations in the particular utopian or dystopian society. My literary focus will lie on how the authors create particular ‘types’ of women. To do this, I will briefly introduce traditional female stereotypes in literature.

Stereotypes are concepts created by human kind to understand and simplify the world. They are produced and reproduced by certain institutions, for example by the media. Looking back in history, one the first media was literature. Literature reflects the society and time it is originated in. Stereotypes mirror society’s perception and expectation of a certain kind or group of people. We have to consider, that the history of literature is dominated by the white, male ruling class. For this reason, the stereotypes I will mention were designed by men. On the other hand, men would not be able to create stereotypes, without having people “acting” (West, Zimmerman 5) them. Therefore, they are the result of gender.

During my research I found a master thesis with a title which was very similar to mine: The Role of Women in Utopian and Dystopian Novels, by Jelena Vukadinovich. This thesis also contains analyses of Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale. Moreover, she also uses traditional stereotypes to analyse the representation of women in these novels. Nevertheless, her approach is very different to the one I preferred for my thesis. She concentrates mainly on the stereotypes themselves, without questioning and analysing them in the context of feminism and gender.

1.2 Selection of Novels

In the following I will briefly introduce the selection of novels for my analysis. Because it is insightful for the analysis to have a male and a female point of view, not only by the choice of the authors, but also the narratives, I have chosen the novels Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Moreover, the novels are written in different historical contexts and offer diverse approaches on the construction of gender. In addition both genres, utopia and dystopia, are represented.

Utopias illustrate ideas of a perfect future and advices of how we can reach this goal. For this reason I chose the utopia Herland. It was written by the American female author Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1915, during the women’s right movement in the US. It describes an overall female society, were men are excluded. The women in Herland have learned to reproduce via pathogenesis and are therefore independent from men. It will be enlightening to analyse how women are represented in an exclusively female society with regard to power relations and gender issues.

Brave New World was written during a time of technological and political changes in the Britain of 1932. As a modernist piece of art, it is characterised by a sense of pessimism and the fear of the loss of values. The ‘lost values’ in Brave New World are inter alia motherhood and family, due to technical reproduction. Women are mostly ‘redeemed’ from their reproductive function. Therefore, Brave New World offers a great possibility to examine how the loss of these ‘values’ influences the representation of women.

Afterwards, I will analyse the dystopia The Handmaids Tale which was published in 1985 during the second wave feminism and the rise of conservatism in the US. It can be characterised as a post-modernist novel. It describes a totalitarian theocracy were the values of motherhood and family are practiced in an exaggerated way. Reproductive women are exploited as ‘bearing-machines’, but although they have to bear children, they are not allowed to be mothers. Therefore, The Handmaids Tale is a counterpart to Brave New World. Whereas Huxley illustrates a society in which women are ‘redeemed’ from reproduction, Atwood shows a society in which women are reduced to their biological functions.

1.3 Structure and Methodology

In order to analyse the representation of women in the context of power relations and gender in the chosen novels, I will firstly explain what defines the genres utopia and dystopia. In the following section, I will introduce traditional stereotyped female roles in literature.

The novels are analysed chronologically, beginning with the utopia Herland. Gilman’s novel introduces ideas of an all female utopian society and therefore forms a strong contrast to the following dystopias. I will continue my analysis with Brave New World, followed by The Handmaid’s Tale. All novels are examined under the same aspects. I will start my analysis with a short introduction to the historical background of the novel. Afterwards, I will analyse the power relations in the fictional societies. Accordingly, I will examine the resulting gender relations. Within this context the representation of women will be analysed with the help of traditional female stereotypes in literature.

I will close my thesis with a discussion and conclusion. In the discussion, I will portray in which aspects, regarding the research question, the novels differ or coincide. The conclusion will proof whether and to what extent the representation of women is dependent on the power and gender relations in the fictional society and the context in which the novel was written.

2. Theoretical Aspects

2.1 Definition of Utopia and Dystopia


A utopia is, in the author’s point of view, a perfect society. The word derives from the Greek morpheme ‘ou’ which means ‘not’ and the morpheme ‘topos’ which means 'place' (“utopia” Oxford English Dictionary). It is therefore a fictional place, an “ideal nowhere” (Kessler 3). The utopian nowhere can be a state, a country or a city which has a metaphorical function. It mirrors ideals and wishes and can “change minds” (Kessler 4). Lee Cullen Khanna defines utopia: “We can find Utopia in the process of experiencing a convincing fiction [...] not ‘out there’ in another time and place- but within the self” (58-59). Utopias always include an idea of ‘how things could be’ and an advice of ‘how things should be’. Therefore, utopias are often used to address and influence people through fiction.


Many critics distinguish between dystopia and anti-utopia, like Lyman Tower Sargent:

[An anti-utopia is] a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as a criticism of utopianism[...]. (Sargent 9)

[A dystopia is] a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived. (Sargent 11)

In my opinion, it is hardly possible to differentiate between dystopia and anti-utopia, because a dystopian society is always a negative result of a utopian ideal. For example, in Brave New World the World State was built to be a perfect and safe place for human kind but developed to be a totalitarian regime. Therefore, I will continue using the term dystopia for my analysis.

A dystopia can be characterised by the following aspects[2]:

1. The society is controlled by a totalitarian regime;
2. The understanding of the own world is distorted due to limited, or completely prohibited communication and the undermining and controlling of culture;
3. The individual is oppressed and ‘melts’ into one functioning society;
4. The state presents itself as a utopian place.

2.2 Traditional Stereotypes in Literature

Stereotypes are concepts created by human kind to understand and simplify the world (Cardwell 225). As stated above, they are produced and reproduced, for example by literature. Literature offers a wide range of different stereotypes, but I will merely concentrate on stereotypes which are useful for my analysis of Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale and Herland.

In the following I will introduce the main characteristics of the relevant stereotypes according to my own reading experience. I will create these stereotypes due to my own perception.

Since stereotypes change over time, as they are a mirror of society, I will concentrate on traditional stereotypes. They will be portrayed in a very brief and general way so they can be applied to the characters in the novels and it can be analysed to what extent they differ or coincide.


Stereotyped mothers are often completely reduced to their status of being a mother. They are valued for their ability to bear children, especially sons and are reduced to domestic areas. Therefore, mothers do not take an important part in literature. They belong to the background information of the plot. Their life is not ‘interesting’ enough to be part of it. This is true as long as the mother behaves right. As soon as she ‘fails’, she is ‘supported’ to be an important character, presenting the abandoned woman, or the failed mother.


Angels are virtuous, often married women who completely dedicate their life to their husbands. They live a chaste and pure life, radiate asexuality and are always submissive to male authorities. Like mothers, angels are reduced to domestic areas. They don’t have children; otherwise their angel status would switch into the stereotype of the mother. Their main duty is to support the hero of a novel in all possible ways. If angels fail to meet the expectations, for example if they show sexual affection, they are doomed to the status of a ‘fallen angel’.

Tempted Women

Tempted women use their female attractiveness to turn the heads of men and to undermine their objectivity. Tempted women are aware of their female sexuality and they are in no way virtuous. This is seen as highly dangerous. They are often compared to Eve in Genesis, who convinced Adam to eat from the forbidden tree and is therefore responsible for the fall of mankind.


The spinster, or old maid, is a woman who lives alone and has no children. In the 17th century the word ‘spinster’ was attached to the name of an unmarried woman to signalise that she is not married. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word developed to “a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed” (“Spinster” Oxford English Dictionary). Furthermore, in literature she is often used to illustrate a middle aged or old asexual women. This woman is regarded as conspicuous and odd, because it is taken for granted that it must be her fold that no men wanted to marry her.

3. The Representation of Women in Herland

3.1 Historical Context

Herland was written in 1915 and published as a serial in Gilman’s own magazine The Forerunner. It was written in a time when industrialisation and capitalism reached its climax so far. On the one hand, the roles of men as wage earners and women as housewives and mothers were deeply established in society but on the other hand, working class women had to combine tasks of mothers, housewives and wage earners. This was necessary to maintain a livelihood but it was also discredited in society. Gilman was engaged to emancipate women in this role, which is also visible in her prior book Women and Economics –A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution published in 1889, but she also criticises the social injustice due to capitalism. These aspects are illustrated and discussed in Herland by three male visitors from the United States. She also offers us a solution in the utopian society of Herland. In addition, Gilman criticises the notion that women are inferior to men, which was deeply anchored in the time and place in which Gilman wrote her novel. As a counterpart, the women’s suffrage movement was established in the US to gain equal rights for women. In Herland Gilman tries to eliminate the prejudices towards women.

3.2 A Country Called Herland

The country called Herland[3] is a utopian place which is only inhabited by women. It is placed on a plateau, separated by inaccessible high mountains in South America. Charlotte Perkins Gilman sends three male characters out on a journey to find this country. It had not been explored before, because the invention of airplanes was necessary to reach it. What the three men find is a nearly perfect, peaceful, highly developed society.

Approximately 2000 years ago, most of the male population of Herland has died in an earthquake. Afterwards, the women killed the remaining men, mainly slaves, because they revolted against the remaining women (Gilman 47). The women were desperate because they were convinced that their population would extinct without men. Nevertheless, they didn’t stop caring about their country and a few years ago a woman became pregnant without having contact to a man. This process is called parthenogenesis (49). This woman is regarded as the mother goddess of Herland. Without male aggressors, the children grow up in a peaceful environment and receive excellent education (ibid). The principles of this society are sisterhood, motherhood, community spirit and a deep connection with nature. Although they worship their mother goddess and elderly wise women, there is no hierarchy in Herland. The division of labour is organised by intrinsic motivation and labour is not paid, but regarded as a contribution to society (65). Every decision regarding the country is discussed collectively, therefore Herland`s political system can be analysed as a grassroots democracy which is comparable to the ideal of socialism.

3.3 Gender

In Herland gender distinctions do not exist. Nevertheless, we experience gender characterisations not only through the eyes of the three male visitors but by the way Gilman illustrates those three men. She illustrates three different male stereotypes. Van, the main character, is a sociologist and views the world scientifically and reasonable. Jeff is a purely romantic person who idealises women. Terry is a macho and a chauvinist who views women as inferior to men (Gilman18). The male visitors are used to introduce social and ideological patterns of the United States to contrast with the ideology of Herland. In the beginning, they have a very clear meaning towards the idea of a country which is inherited by women. They think of it as a country of “a strictly Amazonian nature” (5). Van imagines it to have a matriarchal structure in which men are evacuated and only invited to the women to make “an annual visit- a sort of wedding call” (7). Terry, in his macho-like manner thinks of Herland as a “sort of sublimated summer resort- just Girls, Girls and Girls” (6). To him it was no question that the women would feel attracted to him, because he “was popular among women” (ibid). He expected Herland to be a land of milk and honey, regarding sexuality. Jeff’s imagination of the country is closest to reality. He imagines it to be “blossoming with roses and babies and canaries and tidies [...]” (6) and “a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood” (7). This illustration enables us to clearly characterise those three stereotypes and it helps to understand their reactions and feelings towards Herland when they finally experience it in reality.

The most important similarity of all three imaginations: They are all convinced that there must be men, because in their opinion women would not be able to form a civilised country (10). This is one of the main criticisms which Gilman had probably in mind while writing Herland. The idea of women being inferior can only work if there is someone who is regarded as superior. In a patriarchal society women are therefore regarded as inferior to men because men see themselves as superior to women. The fact that, in a patriarchal society, men hold the power solidifies this notion as a common gender ‘truth’. This gender ‘truth’ was deeply established in the society Gilman lived in while writing Herland. She solves this problem by presenting a perfect society built by women. Kathy Casey, in the preface of the 1998 edition of Herland, correctly observes that Gilman “indeed had radical ideas about women’s role in the patriarchal society in which she lived, and about women’s potential to create a much healthier, happier way of living if they were free from male domination” (iii). It is astonishing how clearly Gilman observes gender even if the notion of gender did not made its way into science, yet. She clearly illustrates that gender relations and characteristics are not given but created and acted. For example, Gilman distinguishes between the subject “woman” and the adjective “feminine”. Terry, who hoped to find a country full of Amazonian beauties, is frustrated because in his opinion the women of Herland “aren’t womanly” (50) which leads to an outburst that reveals what use he sees in women: “What a man wants of women is a good deal more than all this ‘motherhood’” (ibid.). This clearly shows that he objectifies women because what he wants of them is sexuality and devotion. It is Van, the sociologist, who observes:


[1] The “Doing Gender” theory does also include factors like race, ethnicity and social status which will not be considered in my analysis due to the limitation of pages.

[2] For further research and discussion on dystopia, utopia and anti-utopia see: Mohr, Dunja, Worlds Apart? Dualism and Transgression in Contemporary Female Dystopias, page 11-49.

[3] The real name of the country isn’t revealed. Terry, one of the male visitors calls it Herland. This name is used throughout the story.

Excerpt out of 40 pages


The Representation Of Women In Utopian And Dystopian Literature
University of Leipzig
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Gender, Huxley, Gilman, Atwood, Women, Brave New World, Herland, The Handmaids Tale, Sexulaity
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Katharina Kirchhoff (Author), 2012, The Representation Of Women In Utopian And Dystopian Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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