This study is a feminist reading of the novels of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston that focuses on a singularly important, often overlooked, strain in their fiction--their studied preoccupation with the myriad shadings of womanhood. The study inclines heavily toward a discussion of female character, especially the psychology of the black female. Each writer began her career aware of the predominant images or stereotypes of the black woman as sensual, primitive siren, on the one hand, and as the "mammy," the larger-than-life matriarch on the other. Each wrote in conscious opposition to these stereotypes, attempting to create new, more complete images of women that would represent alternatives to these traditional images. What they attempted was not uniformly commensurate with what they achieved, however, for social attitudes about women's roles, as well as artistic censorship by critics and publishers, exerted pressure on the writers that often resulted in their retreat to more conventional statements about womanhood. The study is divided into six chapters. The first chapter provides a general background of the factors that influenced these writers' treatment of the woman question. For example, aspects of their lives clearly influence their central fictional concerns. Each led a life that departed from conventional expectations of women. None became a mother and none seemed to place a high premium on marriage. Social attitudes about women reflected in certain "little magazines" of the Harlem Renaissance period additionally influence these women's treatment of the female. The second chapter analyzes the Harlem Renaissance, its development and character. It outlines the controversy over the nature and function of black literature that factionalized the movement's participants and perhaps initiated its decline. The third chapter examines Fauset's treatment of the black female character and demonstrates that her writings in The Crisis magazine--essays and short stories--as well as her foreign lecture tours are alike consistent with her paramount fictional concerns. The fourth chapter examines Nella Larsen's portrayal of the female character, a portrayal demonstrating that her knowledge of female psychology is more sophisticated than Fauset's, her characterization, stronger, more complex. Larsen openly indicts the three institutions which have most effectively impeded female development and autonomy--education, marriage, and religion--and satirizes her characters who capitulate to these institutions. The fifth chapter discusses Zora Neale Hurston, who surpasses both Fauset and Larsen in chattering those traditions, institutions, and value systems which have historically oppressed women and kept them from developing into full, independent beings. Moreover, Hurston's works, more clearly than either Fauset's or Larsen's, transcend the particulars of the woman question to embrace more universal and humanistic concerns. The last chapter summarizes the major points of the study and briefly discusses its implications. Additionally, the chapter attempts to establish Fauset, Larsen, and Hurston as pioneers in the development of a black female literary tradition and connects them with contemporary black women novelists whose fictional preoccupation is also the sensitive exploration of the dynamics of black womanhood.



Subject Area

American literature

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