What are you reading this summer?

By Helena Chung

A big topic of discussion this summer has centred on the release of the fantasy film, Wonder Woman, which cinematises the DC Comics eponymous heroine. Its success has important implications in a male-dominated industry, hopefully drawing attention to the importance of the female gaze. Similarly, in the publishing industry, there are so many untold stories of women across different cultures and in various parts of the world. I have therefore been racking my brains and trying to compile a list of exclusively female writers. Here are four books that definitely deserve readers’ attention, depicting the sufferings and hard-won victories of women throughout their lifetimes.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Most people automatically associate Charlotte Brontë with Jane Eyre or, if they are familiar with the Brontë sisters, with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. However, I do not agree that Jane Eyre is Charlotte Brontë’s greatest masterpiece, despite its fame within the English literary canon. Villette, a semi-autobiographical work based on Brontë’s own experience in Brussels and her unrequited love towards her married tutor, reflects the difficulty a woman faces when trying to balance both her individual freedom and her desire to be loved. Although this dilemma is also explored in Jane Eyre, in which the readers are rewarded with a conventional happy ending for the lovers, Villette offers something more realistic in its portrayal of the protagonist, Lucy Snowe. Her story concludes ambiguously with the death of her lover – a subtle nod from Brontë towards the incompatibility of marriage and freedom. Happy endings, Brontë suggests, simply do not exist and a woman must learn to survive on her own. This may be the great tragedy of Lucy Snowe, but it is also the crowning achievement of Charlotte Brontë’s writing.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

On the topic of Jane Eyre, feminist criticism of this novel has often focused on Brontë’s portrayal of the Madwoman in the Attic and Jane’s ‘darkest double’ – Bertha Mason. Jean Rhys’ response, written in the 1960s, offers Bertha Mason a chance to tell her own story, articulating the thoughts of a woman with whom she felt a certain connection, both as an outsider and a fellow victim of colonialism. Both Rhys and her heroine are of Creole heritage and similarly encounter racial discrimination in Europe. With its vibrant imagery and unreliable narration, Wide Sargasso Sea records Antoinette’s (Bertha’s) descent into madness, proving that ‘There is always the other side, always” (p.82).

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The struggle to establish one’s identity in a claustrophobic society continues to haunt women with devastating consequences. The Bell Jar, a thinly veiled semi-biographical novel which was published shortly before Plath’s suicide in 1963, explores her anger and disillusionment towards an American society defined by invisible stereotypes and prejudicial expectations. Esther’s attempts to break free and her mental collapse as society starts to invade her inner mind is at the same time horrifying, depressing and incredibly powerful.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Although many people may be familiar with Korean drama, idols and films, contemporary literature previously received little attention in contrast to the country’s pop culture. This changed when Han Kang, a female Korean writer, was awarded the prestigious ‘Man Booker International Prize’ in 2016. The three-part novella touches on the issues of vegetarianism and female insanity, topics which are rarely explored in patriarchal Korean society. The combination of violence and beauty embodied in the poetic language of the novel powerfully depicts the tragedy of Yeong-hye and her sister, as well as the hundreds and thousands of nameless Korean women they represent.

Photograph: LWYang via Flickr and Creative Commons 

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